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
As a cycling enthusiast, I was a thrill to see a velocipede—an early form of bicycle—in the conservation lab. Pierre Lallement and Pierre Michaux patented the design for the velocipede in 1866 before Lallement moved to New Haven, Connecticut, and made improvements to the velocipede on his own. He also gave license to American bike-builders for variations of the velocipede. These early wheelmen obsessed over different ways to power a bicycle—steam, electricity, or dog-powered locomotion.
Most velocipedes haven’t survived. They were melted down as scrap metal during war efforts. When I examined this 1870 example, I marveled at how heavy and unwieldy it was. It would have been very difficult to balance when in motion. Even standing still on its mount, the velocipede was inclined to topple over. Preventing the velocipede from being unstable in its display mount was the primary goal of conservation treatment. A new mount would support the axles, but the weight of the frame needed to be balanced and stable.
In contrast to feather-light alloy bicycle frames today, the velocipede in The Strong’s collection has a bevel-edge backbone made of heavy forged iron, with bold pinstriping on its front fork. A bracket attaches the metal seat to the curved backbone and the arched wrought iron handlebars terminate in a square taper at each end, lacking grips would have been made of turned wood. Typical of velocipedes, the wheels have wood hubs and staggered spokes, which were painted at one time, before the paint flaked and the wood aged and split. The metal tires are bolted and screwed to the wood rims.
When I first looked at the velocipede in the conservation lab, it showed signs of having been ridden through mud and dirt. The rider had shaken the joints loose, as one would expect of a “boneshaker” with metal tires and no spring-loaded mechanisms to soften the vibrations of cobblestone, dirt, and grassy paths. The steering column, triangular brace, and front fork flexed in all directions against the backbone. There were no modern bearings or bushings in the steering assemblage, just hard iron against soft brass with a little grease applied. I could imagine what a rough, shaky ride this would have been. Even scarier is that there are no brakes. Slowing would have been accomplished by pedaling backwards against the dir ect-drive cranks on the front wheel axle. Early bicycles sometimes used “spoon” brakes that were rod-actuated to put pressure on the rim or tire to slow down. Another possible way of braking was to lean back in a spring-loaded saddle, causing a brake to engage on the rear wheel.
The velocipede’s steering assemblage needed to be adjusted to prevent stress on the frame and brass steering tube. The steering assemblage was difficult to loosen or tighten without cleaning, so the parts were removed for cleaning. All spacers, tube, and parts were cleaned in a vibratory tumbler with walnut shell pieces followed by a round in an ultrasonic cl eaner. After cleaning, the "166" inscription was more visible. Original parts that were brass were usually highly polished when they were made although the years of grime and grease had turned the brass carbon black.
The velocipede exhibited extensive metal corrosion overall. In the same way that a well-loved cast iron skillet builds a resilient surface, the iron frame had developed an appealing patina that I did not want to disturb. So I lightly cleaned the cast iron, sufficient to remove embedded grime, grease, and corrosion on the axles, pedal spindles, and steering tube while maintaining the patina. This cleaning would help prevent dust from sticking to any residual grease.
The paint pinstriping on the wood wheel rims and the iron forks and frame was revealed after I removed the grime. Bright gold heavy pinstriping was typical of velocipedes and might have been applied by carriage painters of the 19th century. Barely legible inscriptions on the frame indicate the bike’s maker, Larkin of Portland, Maine.
In the late 19th century, cycling invention moved quickly, producing dozens of patents for bicycles, velocipedes, monocoques, tricycles, and other amusements. The designs r ange from practical examples we still recognize today to absurd machines that look like something from a Doctor Seuss book.
I find it interesting to see which bike ideas caught on and which did not. As high-wheeled penny farthings took the place of velocipedes, riders enjoyed being as high as horse-drawn carriages. With such height came increased risk of losing one’s balance. Mark Twain advised “Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live,” after his attempts to learn to ride a penny farthing, in Taming the Bicycle. I am pleased that conservation treatment tamed the velocipede’s bad case of “the Wobbles” as Twain called it. The velocipede is now on exhibit in One History Place, where you can step into the past and experience life like it was more than a century ago.
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.
In my previous blog titled I’d Like to Thank All the Little People, I described the profound impact that Fisher-Price’s Play Family had on my preschool years in the early 1970s.
Recently, debates about women and video games have been making the rounds. The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and the Colbert Report, for instance, have drawn attention to what it can be like for women in gaming communities.
The Strong not only collects playthings, but also acquires significant material related to the invention, manufacture, and use of those playthings. One of the museum’s treasures is the collection of games, game prototypes, and archives from noted American game inventor and historian, Sid Sackson. Sackson (1920–2002) is revered among inventors, collectors, and serious players for his lifelong dedication to games and the gaming world.
Anyone interested in the evolution of video games can learn a great deal by simply examining the history of the six newest inductees into The Strong’s World Video Game Hall of Fame: The Oregon Trail, Space Invaders, The Legend of Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, The Sims, and Grand Theft Auto III.
It’s game night and my friends are gathered in my dining room. Four of them are face-down in a plateful of whipped cream, with their hands tied behind their backs, desperately trying to find snack-size candy bars hidden underneath. The rest of the group are laughing raucously, cheering their partners on. The goal of the first group to find and eat all five hidden snack-size candy bars is well on its way, and it looks like it’s coming down between my friend, James, and my wife, Kaytlyn.
I have a confession to make. It’s kind of embarrassing, but I’m hoping readers will understand. I’m 34 years old, and just recently, I attended my first rock concert. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering my profession, this concert consisted of a hard rock opera based on the 1980s video game series Mega Man.
“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.