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.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W.
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.