Play Stuff Blog

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.

Art + Toys = Art-Toys?

Plastic was invented in the late 19th century, but not until after World War II did advances in chemical technology make it malleable and affordable enough to meet the demands of toy manufacturers. The first plastic toys seemed crude—some toy companies combined plastic heads or hands with cloth or wooden bodies, while others made attempts at translating new concepts into tangible plastic toys. Soon plastic toys of all kinds—Mickey Mouse figures, moon men, ray guns, model kits, and Astro Boy products, among others—hit the market. For more than 60 years, plastic toys have continued to meet the desires of a high-consumption society. By the 1990s, artists such as Michael Lau, Rodney Greenblat, and Eric So started to create art-toys that reflected their individual style and consciously distorted and celebrated mass-marketed plastic toys.

Brian McCarty, contemporary artist and photographer, has donated to The Strong a collection of more than 100 toys featured in his book, Art-Toys, a compilation of photographs that integrate toy characters into real-life situations. His use of implied narratives and ironic juxtapositions often leads to associations with the art-toy movement, which blends personal sensibility with art, design, and toys to create original items. McCarty’s donation presents a comprehensive representation of art-toys. Here are a just a few of the highlights:

Eyezon Art Toy ​1. Eyezon

The early 1950s introduced the Kaiju genre (roughly translated from Japanese as “giant monster”) to popular culture. Heroes and villains included Rodan, Godzilla, Baragon, Destoroyah, and Gigan, among others. The art-toy movement has seen a resurgence of the genre as many of the artists grew up playing with toy monsters. Mark Nagata, artist and owner of Max Toy Co., is at the forefront of the Kaiju movement. McCarty incorporated Nagata’s Eyezon character into his photograph, “Business as Usual,” intended as an observation of the financial crisis. Eyezon is quite beautiful, considering he is born from a mutant potato, and he demonstrates the connection between highbrow art and the emotions and thoughts rooted in childhood.

Qwezshun, Art Toy ​2. Qwezhun

Art-toys play with our expectations and conformities. In 2006, McCarty collaborated with Fisher-Price and Hi Fructose Magazine to create a View-Master reel magazine insert. The reel contained 3-D stereoscopic photos of art-toys. One of the images featured Attaboy’s Qwezhun character. The character has been described as the “patron saint of unanswered questions and plots gone awry.” With the View-Master reel, the magazine brought nostalgia and contemporary art to its readership. Douglas Rushkoff, media theorist and writer noted that “the merging of toy with art along with the self-conscious merging of commercial, synthetic production with highly personal vision brings the innocence of childhood back.”

Wish Come True, Art Toy ​3. Wish Come True

FriendsWithYou, Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III, created the Wish Come True series of mini figures to appeal to adults and children as young as 18-months. FriendsWithYou described the figures as wishing amulets that “empower individuals with the magic of ritual and wishing.” The rainbow-colored figures come in six different forms with various patterns. Each figure has a weighted bottom and built-in chime that creates a playful rocking motion and a soothing sound. Toys like these brought the subculture of the art-toy movement into the homes of numerous Americans and encouraged toy manufactures to expand the uniqueness of their mass marketed characters. 

Mr. Bumper, Art Toy ​​Other highlights from McCarty’s donation include Mr. Bumper, Axtrx, Devo Booji Boy Quee, Petit Lapin, Brass Knuckle Bob, and Mr. Spray. The donation builds the foundation for documenting the chronology of the art-toy movement, which is still very much in motion. Currently, many art-toy manufacturers depend on a mix of artistic and licensed properties to foster and maintain financial stability. Kidrobot and Funko dominate the market by merging pop culture favorites like The Simpsons, Rick & Morty, Marvel, Fraggle Rock, ‘90s Nickelodeon, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with unique toys. By adding these products to their repertoire, manufacturers are connecting with children and adults.

The Top: Start Here

Start with a top. It’s simple, cheap, fun, unbreakable, and memorable; its principles, too, serve as the basis for several other toys.

Read more >

Why Is a Football Football-Shaped?

This is a good question to which people give several answers.

Read more >

The Toy That Starts the Holiday Season

Even though many homes already display bright lights or pine wreaths and most stores are stocked to the gills with Christmas merchandise, some folks can’t quite begin the holiday season until they see the latest Hess toy truck.

Read more >

The Greatest Toy Never Sold

Not every Hall of Fame toy comes from a store. Take the cardboard box, for instance. No company advertises it. Parents don’t line up for it during the holiday shopping season. No one sings its jingle. It costs nothing. Yet the cardboard box offers the imagination a feast. With crayons and tempera paint, you can turn the cardboard box into an ocean liner, a space ship, a dragster, a covered wagon, a submarine, or a castle.

Read more >

What Goes Around, Comes Around

When I was twelve, I cared about only two things, and the bicycle wasn't one of them. I lived for playing football and reading science fiction, especially that genre's dark prophet, H.G. Wells. I imagined the future the way he did: filled with invading Martians, human evolution gone awry, world anarchy, nuclear chain-reaction, a sputtering, cooling sun, you name it. When Wells imagined the shape of things to come, he saw frightful scenarios. Disaster loomed.

Read more >

Barbie, You're Beautiful

Barbie. Love her or not, you have to admit that she is important.

Read more >

Holiday Geek Gift List

Although the electronic games of my youth have since evolved into something different, one thing has remained the same: savvy marketers continue to cash in on the popularity of electronic games through non-electronic merchandise. In addition, Internet storefronts allow innovative individuals to create and market their own electronic game-related products.

Read more >

The Frisbee: Spinning the Truth

Some tall tales are so pleasing that you wish they were true. Not the kind that are just mistakes, like believing that John F. Kennedy was a gifted ventriloquist or that Shania Twain is Mark Twain’s great grand-daughter. I’m talking about plausible old yarns like the one about the young George Washington fessing-up to cutting down the cherry tree. The story isn’t true, but generations of Americans thought it should have been because it fit our Founding Father’s virtues so well.

Read more >

The Ball: Right Back at You, Jon Stewart

When the National Toy Hall of Fame inducts new toys each year, people notice—tens of millions notice.

Read more >

Duncan Yo-Yo: Strings Attached

There’s something liberating about the

Read more >

Pages