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.

Little Boxes: Plasticville Plays at Post-World War II Suburbia

Neighborhood shot from Edward Scissorhands film, 1990 Following World War II, William Levitt applied techniques of mass production to construction and built neighborhood developments on Long Island. Wartime shortages had crippled the housing industry, but Levitt knew that veterans would be eager to establish a normal life. When the Levitt homes hit the market in 1949, more than 1,400 sold on the first day. Over the years, post-World War II suburbia propelled a new type of domestic design and many Americans exceeded the standard of living appreciated by previous generations. Economists, sociologists, historians, and artists, among others, often deem suburbia as an uncontrolled sprawl that imposed conformity and served as a tool for segregation. Others get nostalgic about the suburban neighborhoods that shaped their childhoods. Director Tim Burton once told a reporter that “it’s not a bad place … it’s a place where there’s a lot of integrity.” As I prepared a display of train accessories to highlight at The Strong, I found this discussion especially pertinent to Plasticville, a brand of plastic toy train accessories by Bachmann Bros.

Bachmann Bros. originally manufactured celluloid hair combs and optical frames. In 1946, the company marketed injection molded fencing intended to serve as a “Christmas fence” for Yuletide displays. Rather than use the fencing for their Christmas gardens, consumers tended to incorporate it in their model train layouts. Bachmann caught onto the trend and began to add other accessories such as trees, bushes, and bridges. By 1950, Bachmann added houses and municipal buildings to the line and named it Plasticville U.S.A. With prices ranging from 39 to 99 cents (much lower than wood and lithographed toy buildings), children could afford to purchase a set from the hobby store or other local retailer. The sets also featured snap-together construction and required no glue to assemble. Plasticville quickly became a playtime staple.

Plasticville 1852 Ranch House construction setChildren growing up in the 1950s also often wanted to replicate the neighborhoods in which they lived through play. Unlike other manufacturers that often stuck to traditional platforms, stations, newsstands, and switch towers, Bachmann designers created kits that provided insights into everyday life. Plasticville provided “a city in a box” and included hardware stores, highway motels, supermarkets, trailer homes, airports, greenhouses, firehouses, schools, police stations, and ranch houses in pretty pastels and picturesque boxes. With a few dollars and a little imagination, a child could create a miniature ‘ville that resembled the one just outside of his window.

Plasticville captured the spirit of early post-war America. People were excited about the potential of new innovations such as the more than 500 plastics that hit the market following the war. The possibility of affordable tract housing with nearby amenities also encouraged feelings of optimism. Plasticville continues to represent the suburban tranquility dreamt up more than 60 years ago.

MECC, The Company that Launched Educational Gaming

It is impossible to tell the story of educational computing without acknowledging the tremendous importance of Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), the first organization to provide widespread access to games and other computer software for educational purposes.

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Barbie Hacks and Mods: On Swapping Voices, Removing Makeup, and Fighting Prejudice

Barbie has raised eyebrows since her debut at the 1959 Toy Fair. Modeled after the German Bild Lilli novelty doll, Barbie provided girls a playroom outlet for their dreams and aspirations. Inventor Ruth Handler knew that girls wanted to play at more than being a mother to life-sized baby dolls, but Mattel executives were skeptical.

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PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH … And Why Some People Do, Anyway

If you are a human with a job and colleagues, your coworkers probably send you links to various items on the Internet. These may include the occasional funny cat video, but most of the time the content probably has a legitimate connection to your job. In my case, people send me numerous articles about preservation and, thankfully, most of it is good news.

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“He Shoots! He Scores!”: Hockey Games for the Off-Season

Being a fan of a professional sports team can be a lot of work. Sure, you can casually flip through the television channels on a Sunday afternoon and watch a few minutes of football, or you can accept some free tickets to a baseball game just to appreciate the sunshine and some stadium hot dogs, but folks who call themselves “die-hard fans” really take their enjoyment of sports to a different level.

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Playing Pirate

It’s 9:43 a.m. on September 19, and you’re eyeing the morning’s deadlines when the usually reserved graphic artist pokes her head into your office and says, “Ye’ll have me that copy before the sun is over the yard-arm, or I’ll have ye walkin’ the plank, ye swab, ye scurvy son of a sea dog.” With a flourish, she whips an X-Acto  knife in her teeth. You notice that she’s wearing a tri-cornered felt hat with the Jolly Roger on the brim.

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An Ancient Game in a Digital Age

Recently for The Strong’s American Journal of Play, I reviewed Garry Fine’s new book on the sociology of chess, and I particularly enjoyed his discussion on the role of computers in chess.

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Playing Catch

Several years ago, friends came to visit and brought along their Australian shepherd/border collie mix and this black Ko

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A Shopping We Will Go…

Shopping. Chances are that word triggers a sensation of either joy or dread in your brain. Love it or loathe it, shopping plays a pretty hefty role in most of our lives, whether it’s a quick trip to the market for some essentials or a day-long event to find that one perfect item. Regardless of your shopping style—necessity or hobby—it’s hard to ignore that shopping represents a large part of our everyday culture, including how we play.

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My Year with Atari


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What Do Pinball and Jiminy Cricket Have in Common?

Before I came to The Strong, my exposure to pinball had been limited to the Barbie Shakin’ Pinball handheld video game that I received for Christmas 1995. I have definitely come a long way in my pinball knowledge since then, from learning the proper terms for components I never knew existed (pop bumpers are my favorite) to discovering the game’s tumultuous and sometimes scandalous past (mob connections, anyone?). Once I saw the machines up close, I became fascinated with the several different types of artwork that appear on every pinball machine.

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