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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.

Wiffle Ball Joins the National Toy Hall of Fame Line-up

Wiffle ball and original boxOn 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.

Assorted Wiffle balls and original boxes 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.

Scooby Doo as Colonel Mustard in the Graveyard: Licensed Clue Games

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Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

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Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.

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Teetotums

“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.

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Rack ‘Em Up

I grew up in a small town with a population of roughly 5,000. It may not look it now, but it was once booming with activity and businesses. A basket factory and a canning factory ranked among the major employers. Then the train quit making stops in town. Without convenient access to supplies, factories slowly closed and the population dwindled. But what became of the train station and the hotel attached to it? That is a key part of my childhood. Somewhere down the line the train station came into my family’s possession. It was then converted to a home and family-owned pub.

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