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
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.
Children 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.
My love of movable books and of antique toys and games containing the richly colored chromolithographs of the last half of the 1800s brought me to The Strong’s Online Collections. I spent four days “oohing” and “ahhing” over the vast archive of images in the museum’s database before I discovered it was possible to view the actual objects by arranging an appointment or, better yet, applying for a fellowship for an in-depth immersion.
Knitting, quilting, and other domestic hobbies appear to have experienced a surge in popularity over the past two decades. Perhaps it is more accurate to state that they have experienced a surge in visibility thanks to social media and other online communities, as the qualities that attract people to domestic hobbies have remained constant for centuries.
Domestic hobbies scratch the play itch—the need for creative expression and for losing yourself in the flow of an activity. In my previous blog, I addressed the therapeutic nature of crafting and the calm that it brings to its practitioners. Creative pursuits can also meet the need for community, for comfort and companionship for the individual and also for the comfort of the greater good, through social causes and charities.
“I knit so I don’t kill people.”
In the spring, guests attending The Strong’s Museum Secrets events got a behind-the-scenes look at The Strong’s conservation labs and learned about some of the strategies and techniques used to keep collections preserved.
GIFT SHOP. Those two words might strike fear into the hearts of museum-going parents, but for children who have been bribed into good behavior, it is a beacon. Don’t disappear, don’t have a tantrum, don’t break anything—you may be rewarded with something from the museum’s gift shop. I grew up in Pittsburgh, where we had a treasure trove of museums to frequent.
Museums have long memorialized genius. While art museums preserve great paintings and sculptures, history museums collect and preserve a wide-ranging record of the ways individuals, groups, and companies have shaped our society.
In November 2015, I came from my home in Turin, Italy, to spend a month at The Strong museum working on my research project, “The Meaning of Toys: Creating and Conveying Knowledge through Playful Artifacts.” I was honored to be granted a Strong Research Fellowship that financed the first half of my stay.