The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.
Play Stuff Blog
Get out your library cards and alert your book club! As far as we’re concerned, National Toy Hall of Fame season never ends, making it a fine time for another edition of Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love. Last year, I recommended books about 11 Toy Hall of Fame inductees and their inventors. This year, dive into four “old-timers” and one new inductee with this fresh reading list!
Named “Toy of the Century” in 2000 by both Fortune magazine and the British Association of Toy Retailers, LEGO blocks have delighted kids and their parents for nearly 70 years. In 1949, Ole Christiansen, a Danish carpenter, created a set of interlocking red-and-white “Automatic Binding Blocks." In Danish, leg godt means “play well,” and Christiansen named his company—and his bricks—LEGO.
In A Million Little Bricks: the Unofficial Illustrated History of the LEGO Phenomenon (2012), Sarah Herman tells the story of Christiansen and his son, Godtfred, whose innovations took the bricks from wood to plastic and brought LEGO to international success. David C. Robertson focuses on how LEGO embraced a new kind of innovation to survive and thrive in the tech revolution of the 1990s in Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry (2013). The Cult of LEGO by John Baichtal and Joe Meno (2011) brings LEGO into focus through the lens of modern pop culture with engaging text and photographs.
In 1863, New York businessman James Plimpton developed skates with four wheels that turned easily and roller skating took off in all directions. By the late 1870s, most towns boasted skating rinks with hard wooden floors. Skating evolved from romantic rink skating to skate dancing, free skating, pairs and fours figure skating, speed skating, roller hockey, show skating, and rollerblading, which boomed in the 1990s. Roller derby, invented in 1935 by Leo Seltzer, experienced a rebirth in 2001 in Austin, Texas, and has since become a global phenomenon.
In Derby Life: A Crash Course in the Incredible Sport of Roller Derby (2015), Margot "Em Dash" Atwell recaps the history of roller derby from the 1930s to the modern, punk-inspired movement it is today. Atwell weaves stories from derby pioneers among practical advice on training, injuries, joining a league, and how to pick out your Derby name and persona.
In 1964, amid the Cold War, Hasbro introduced a new type of toy into the world of play. Named G.I. Joe after ordinary soldiers of World War II, the 11.5-inch male figure wore uniforms representing the U.S. military and had 21 moving parts. Hasbro branded it an “action figure” to distinguish it from dolls and created a variety of vehicles, equipment, and play sets to accompany it.
John Michlig’s intensely illustrated G.I. Joe: the Complete Story of America’s Favorite Man of Action (1998) features interviews with the toy designers, makers, and executives that brought G.I. Joe to life and documents Joe’s origins, his struggles during the post-Vietnam War era, and his triumphant return to the playroom in the 1980s and 1990s.
Nintendo Game Boy, Class of 2009
Following the enormous success of its Nintendo Entertainment System home console, Nintendo launched Game Boy in 1989 and the system became an instant hit. Game Boy’s success was not driven by advanced graphics or processing power, but rather by simple and efficient design, head-to-head connectivity, and scores of intriguing games.
Relive every moment of Game Boy’s release with Game Boy World 1989 by Jeremy Parish (2015). Full-color images of the games’ packaging and gameplay, biographies of game developers, and in-depth exploration of each game released that first year make this book visually appealing and intellectually stimulating. For a full history of Nintendo, consult Good Nintentions: A 30th Anniversary Tribute to the Nintendo Entertainment System by the Gamespite Crew.
David N. Mullany, a retired semi-pro baseball player, noticed that his son and friend could not play a game of baseball in their cramped backyard—especially without breaking any windows. He began cutting holes in spherical plastic containers and gave them to his son for testing, eventually developing a ball with eight oblong slots that allowed the ball to grab air, thus diverting its trajectory. The Wiffle Ball, patented in 1957, slowed the game, shrunk the playing field, and made it conducive to play in post-World War II suburbia.
In Wiffle Ball: The Ultimate Guide (2010), Michael Hermann takes a deep dive into the world of Wiffle. The ball’s history is interwoven with Mullany family lore and interviews. Its influence on popular culture is reflected in celebrity interviews, from Nick Jonas to Julius Erving, and references to the Wiffle Ball in Family Circus comics and Beastie Boys lyrics. Hermann also covers Wiffle Ball leagues and fields, the science behind the ball, and how to throw and hit like a pro.
Now that your “to read” list has grown a bit longer, it’s time to pick up a book and get going. By the time the next induction happens in November, there will be more toy stories to tell!
Note: All of the books listed are available for checkout with your Monroe County Library System card from the Toy Halls of Fame exhibit at The Strong.
Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.
I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.
Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.
Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.
“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.
“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.