The toy collections of The Strong’s National Museum of Play® include more than 68,000 artifacts, including more than 4,500 examples of the 44 toys that have been recognized by induction into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame. For purposes of organization and description, the toy collections fall into a variety of categories. Those noted below represent some of the most popular and historically significant groupings.
Almost as soon as the Wright Brothers first flew their aircraft at North Carolina’s Kitty Hawk, toy manufacturers began to fuel kids’ fascination with things that fly. The simplest aviation toys replicated the earliest planes. Others, sold in kits, encouraged kids to build and fly their own models. Still others documented advances in military and commercial aviation or celebrated particular events, such as Charles Lindbergh’s solo flight across the Atlantic and stunt pilots’ barnstorming acts of the 1920s. Manufacturers like Ferdinand Strauss, Louis Marx, Ideal, Hubley, Buddy L, Metalcraft, Wyandotte, Tootsietoy, and Renwal in the United States and Meccano Dinky, Playcraft Toys, Joutra, Cardini, Ernst Planck, GAMA, and Bandai in Europe all produced aviation toys, and all are represented in the museum’s collection of more than 400 examples.
See also “Out of the Wild Blue Yonder.”
Alphabet and Building Blocks
For generations, alphabet and building blocks have ranked among toddlers’ first toys. Parents and child experts alike favor them because playing with them helps children develop hand-eye coordination, creativity, and the ability to experiment. In the late 19th century, toy makers devised ways of sawing blocks in quantity and embossing the wood with letters, numbers, and figures in low relief. By the early 1900s, manufacturers produced brightly colored chromolithograph images on paper-covered blocks. The Progressives and educators of the early 20th century promoted alphabet and building blocks as toys that gave toddlers nicely-sized objects to manipulate and, in the case of alphabet blocks especially, also placed the building blocks of reading before children early in their development. The more than 150 block sets in the museum’s collection extend from embossed wooden sets from the 19th century through current molded plastic blocks in primary colors.
See also Alphabet Blocks, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2003, and “Charles M. Crandall Toys—Vintage Playthings, Modern Play.”
In the last quarter of the 19th century, companies such as Arcade, Dent, Hubley, Kenton, and Carpenter became known for their horse-drawn fire wagons, circus wagons, and grocer and milk wagons. Later, when automobiles appeared on America’s highways, companies produced toy Ford Model Ts, Buick coupes, and DeSoto sedans in faithful detail. Those, along with taxicabs, tractor trailers, dump trucks, and other conveyances, replicated the variety of real-life vehicles on city streets. In fact, manufacturers boasted that their toys had educational value because boys could pretend to drive cars and trucks that looked like those of their fathers. Beyond the more than 100 items in the Arcade Collection, the museum has more than 200 additional fire trucks, circus wagons, carriages, motorcycles, and other cast-iron vehicles dating from the late 1900s to the start of World War II.
See also the Arcade Collection in Toy Company Collections.
Playing with building sets requires imagination, planning, critical thinking, and strategizing—all skills that kids rely on when they enter the adult world. Since the 19th century, toy makers have tried to produce a better construction set. Building blocks—which occupy their own collections category at The Strong’s National Museum of Play—have continued to the present, but they have been joined by such 20th-century classics as Tinkertoys, Lincoln Logs, Erector Sets, and others. Beyond building blocks, the museum holds more than 200 construction sets that run the gamut from Erector Sets and Lincoln Logs to the latest LEGO and K’NEX products. Together they demonstrate the ways technology, materials, and marketing have shaped popular building toys over more than a century.
See also “Building an Empire.”
Dollhouse Furnishings, Miniatures,
and Miniature Rooms
Miniature replicas of things in the real world have intrigued and fascinated humans for centuries. The earliest miniatures looked much like the handcrafted adult furniture and housewares they copied. As manufacturers learned to use cast iron, sheet metal, tin, and plastic in mass-production, miniatures appeared in toy and other stores in increasing numbers. These days, miniatures have two main groups of devotees. Children continue to play with their dollhouses but are just as likely to furnish virtual dollhouses on the Internet at Club Penguin, Webkinz, The Sims 2, and similar multiuser game sites. Meanwhile, building and furnishing dollhouses and miniature rooms is a popular hobby for grown-ups. The museum’s collection includes more than 20,000 miniatures, some of them playthings for children and some of them things of play for adults. Also included are more than 200 miniature rooms and settings.
See also “A Big Collection of Little Things.”
For more than 500 years, dollhouses—from ones built as status symbols for wealthy European adults in the 1500s to ones handcrafted for children in the 1600s and 1700s, and from ones mass-produced in the 1800s and 1900s to ones finely crafted by adult hobbyists in the 2000s—have been important objects for self-expression and fantasy. As toys, dollhouses help children learn about interior design and household management and encourage them to use their imaginations to create and share stories. The more than 200 dollhouses in the museum’s collection range from elaborate hand-crafted Victorian mansions to printed metal ranch-style houses and include everything from toddler-targeted plastic dollhouses to hobbyists’ models.
See also dollhouse, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2011.
Mechanical and Still Banks
Mechanical and still banks first appeared after the Civil War, when munitions manufacturers retooled their foundries to produce peace-time goods. The simple mechanical actions of some of these banks delighted children, promoted thrift, and reflected popular pastimes. Some celebrated contemporary events—President Theodore Roosevelt shoots at a bear in one; Spain and the United States go to war in another; and the 1892 celebration of Columbus’s landing in the New World appears in another. Still others perpetuated ethnic biases and poked fun at politicians. The museum’s collections include some 700 examples of these three-dimensional documents of history.
More than 1,100 mechanical toys in the museum’s collection demonstrate the many ways they’ve walked, waddled, rolled, and hopped into play history, from 19th-century clockwork metal toys to plastic windups given away at fast food restaurants today. The collection also features an array of elaborate 19th-century automata.
Star Wars Action Figure Collection
Between 1978 (a year after the first Star Wars movie appeared) and 2013, fans of it and its five sequels purchased more than 300 million 3.75-inch-high plastic action figures based on the movies’ engaging characters. Because of the action figures’ long-lasting popularity, in 2012 The Strong inducted them into the National Toy Hall of Fame. This collection includes 1,950 items, which represent 85 percent of the approximately 2,300 distinct figures made in the first 35 years of the toy line. Fon Davis, a former Industrial Light and Magic model maker who worked on the earliest Star Wars movies, assembled the encyclopedic collection. Before coming to The Strong, it served to illustrate Star Wars: The Ultimate Action Figure Collection by former Lucasfilm executive Steven J. Sansweet.
Ever since the early 20th century, when toymaker Morris Michtom fashioned a soft bear figure of plush fabric and, with President Theodore Roosevelt’s permission, named it Teddy’s Bear, teddy bears have persisted as popular and cuddly toys, appealing to children and adults alike. From classic Steiff designs to the latest Build-a-Bear creations, the more than 400 examples in the museum’s collection represent the wide variety of teddy bears over the past century.
See also Teddy Bear, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.
Steam powered the first toy trains, and when manufacturers figured out how to use electricity to power the toys, model layouts became common in family playrooms. Joshua Lionel Cohen offered his first train sets in the early 1900s, and by the middle of the 20th century, Lionel trains dominated the market. By the 1930s, adult modelers—mostly men—founded the National Model Railroad Association with local chapters in every state. By the end of the 20th century, hobbyists numbered about 500,000 throughout the U.S.A. The museum owns more than 1,000 pieces of Lionel rolling stock and thousands more related items for creating the elaborate layouts that kids and adults both find so engaging. Brands other than Lionel are also represented in the collection.
See also Lionel Trains, inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2006.
Toy historians speculate that yo-yos have been around for centuries. Patent applications for improvements to the basic spool on a string appeared in the United States around 1866. Yo-yos have been part of American childhood since the 1920s and especially since the toy’s revival by Duncan in the 1960s. Not just for kids, however, the yo-yo is the centerpiece of dozens of local, national, and international contests for yo-yo tricksters for all ages. The museum’s collection includes almost 1,900 examples of the popular toy.