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.
“Hey! I had one of those growing up!” is a frequent statement we hear from guests roaming through The Strong. With such a large and diverse collection on display, everyone young and old can discover personal treasures behind the glass cases. The nostalgia of smiling childhood memories brings joy, as toy companies have discovered.
Genius knows no boundaries. That’s the inescapable conclusion I reach when I look at the 2016 finalists for The Strong’s World Video Game Hall of Fame.
The Strong’s research fellowship program not only provides an opportunity for scholars to view rare material in the museum’s collection and archives, but it also expands the potential for the study of play in academia. Being surrounded by the artifacts of play with which we all have experiential knowledge helped me realize the importance of studying play objects and children’s culture. Although my research focuses specifically on Mattel’s historical production of Black Barbie dolls, The Strong reminded me why my research topic is significant.
Okay, I’ll confess that I haven’t actually seen the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. But in my personal comparison of the two iconic superheroes, Batman wins almost every time.
In the early 1990s, CD-ROMs promised consumers a dramatic leap forward in the capabilities of computers to provide immersive experiences.
One of the most interesting stories of the history of play in North America is its economic “democratization.” Broadly speaking, over the course of the late 19th century and throughout the 20th, a rising standard of living allowed more North Americans to devote extra time to playing.
As I stood outside The Strong’s new permanent Pinball Playfields exhibit, I couldn’t help but see and overhear our guests’ reactions to the flashing lights and distinct pops and thumps of the pinball machines.
Record low temperatures and un-melting piles of snow kept parents scrambling to entertain house-bound children in the winter of 2015. This winter hasn’t been quite as cold or snowy in Rochester but, just in case the snows return, I’m ready with some practical advice drawn from The Strong’s Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, a research repository devoted to the history of play.