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
On November 9, 2017, Wiffle Ball took its place of honor in the National Toy Hall of Fame, joining 64 other classic toys and games. Introduced in 1953, the Wiffle Ball represents the optimism of the postwar era and the romanticism of life in the suburbs. Part of the Wiffle Ball’s charm is that it remains relatively unchanged since its introduction. The orange, black, and white Wiffle Ball box today features nearly the same typeface and instructions on how to throw the ball as it did originally; on occasion the box depicted a celebrity such as Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, or Paul Winchell and Jerry Mahoney. The game rules and dimensions for the field of play prove simple enough for players to make it their own. And play with a Wiffle Ball grants the pitcher with the magic of illusion thanks to its founder’s perseverance.
It all began in Fairfield, Connecticut in 1952 when David Nelson Mullany watched his 12-year-old son and a friend play a pick-up game with a perforated plastic golf ball and a broomstick. Based on the kids’ creative adaptation of baseball, Mullany decided that postwar American suburbia did not have “enough room for two teams, enough space for a field,” and neighborhood baseball games led to “too many broken windows.” Mullany batted around a few ideas and he began to cut holes in ball-shaped plastic containers he commandeered from a nearby cosmetics manufacturer, with his son stepping up to the plate to test the designs. As a retired semi-pro baseball pitcher, Mullany also wanted a design that made it easier for his son to throw curve balls. Through trial and error, the Mullanys determined that a ball with eight oblong slots cut into one hemisphere worked best at grabbing the air and diverting the ball’s trajectory. The pitcher could easily throw a curve, a slider, or a knuckle ball. Players used a thin purpose-built bat, which further advantaged the pitcher by handicapping the batter. Their version of the revised game produced a good number of strike-outs, called “whiffs” in the Mullany’s neighborhood.
Having focus grouped his product, Mullany introduced a whole new ball game when he began to sell the balls for 49 cents each from the back of a station wagon and at a local diner. When Mullany supplied local stores with the ball in 1953, he removed the “h” and trademarked the name “Wiffle.” Mullany’s design slowed the pick-up game and shrunk its field. Minimizing the effects of size and skill, his goofy orb evened the contest and had a big impact on neighborhood play. Mullany broaden his reach in 1954 when he hired a marketing agent based in New York. Wiffle Balls hit the market on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan and the company struck a deal with Woolworth stores. The Wiffle Ball proved sufficiently successful that, in the following decades, the company has only produced one major marketing campaign—in the 1960s, New York Yankee Whitey Ford endorsed the Wiffle Ball in a short film about how to throw the ball. The Wiffle Ball Corporation soon set-up shop in a small, two-story brick factory in Shelton, Connecticut, and managed to cultivate the all-American pastime with its product. The Wiffle Ball Corporation insists that, when it comes to their signature product, they do not “know exactly why it works—it just does.” For more than 60 years, generations of kids have started their baseball careers swinging at a Wiffle Ball, demonstrating precisely the type of longevity and iconic status that has earned it entry into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy.
One of the great pleasures of working at The Strong is that every exhibit features a time portal back to childhood, most of which hold innumerable portals. No sooner does a visitor exclaim, “Oh! I had one of those when I was a kid!,” at the sight of Teddy Ruxpin before she is confronted by the Ms.
Today, fantasy role-playing video games—in which players assume the role of heroes wielding swords, casting spells, riding dragons, and battling monsters—are among the most popular and influential of games.
Think about some of the “must-have” toys you’ve seen (or even procured) over the last few years. How about the playful robotic dog Zoomer? Or the small, colorful, hooked building balls called Bunchems?
Mothers get their day in May. Fathers are feted in June. And what about sisters and brothers? Their turn comes on April 10—Siblings Day. Siblings Day hasn’t earned recognition as a federal holiday (yet), but since 1998, governors have proclaimed Siblings Day in 49 states. From experience and observation, I know that sibling relationships can take any number of different configurations. And that made me think about the famous siblings that come readily to mind from the world of toys, dolls, and games.
I first became interested in the increase of plastic in children’s toys through my own daughter’s toys, especially since my undergrad degree was in Environment and Health, with a fourth year focus on Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) in baby bottles. Throughout my Masters studies, I focused on the central question of why we keep what we do, how we make those decisions, and the ways in which we’ve come to value or devalue certain things.
We have all heard the saying that a dog is man’s (and woman’s too) best friend. We love dogs so much that they even have their own special day—National Puppy Day! Canine companionship has been around for eons and extends from pets to working dogs. Whether they are snuggle buddies, sled pullers, or law enforcement assistants, dogs play a significant role in our society and in our hearts. So it should be no surprise that their popularity also carries over into children’s literature and playthings.
I receive a lot of strange looks whenever I tell people that I look forward to the end of summer. Perhaps your face has morphed into such an expression after reading that. But there is logic behind my claim. It seems to me that the opportunity for play during the autumn and winter months is a bit underrated when compared to the long, bright summer days here in the Northeast. Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the transition to shorter, darker days and frigid temperatures is a bit sobering, but let’s not overlook the opportunities for play, because they surround us everywhere.