Play Stuff Blog

"True Hollywood” Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love  

When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with the television program E! True Hollywood Story. Each week, I took a salacious rollercoaster ride through the ups and downs of a celebrity’s life. Right before each commercial break, the narrator assured me that either the star was about to be saved from his downward spiral or that her glory days were going to come to a screeching halt. I loved the drama and the “truth is stranger than fiction” element of the program. To this day, among my favorite authors are masters of journalistic nonfiction like Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer, and Sebastian Junger. Each year, The Strong inducts a new class into the National Toy Hall of Fame, and the world has an opportunity to learn the “true story” of each iconic and innovative toy. Toys are not created or played with in a vacuum: they are inexorably connected to the lives and times of their inventors and are equally as connected to the lives of the children who play with them, and the times in which those children live. The stories behind toys are full of intrigue, humor, and humanity. Here are my top ten toy stories to read—with a bonus selection for one of the 2016 Toy Hall of Fame inductees!

Barbie, Class of 1998

September 1918 article in Playthings magazine, The Strong, Rochester, New York. The September 1918 article in Playthings, “Toy Giving Approved,” detailed Gilbert’s masterful speech that detailed hard facts and figures about the value of the American toy industry to the country. He appealed to their patriotism and desire for American success in markets abroad. He touted the toy industry’s role in the education and development of American youth. With the Council members under his spell, Gilbert brought out the big guns: his fellow toy makers “came forward with a large variety of toys of different characters. These toys were placed in the hands of members of the Cabinet and they were studied with interest and enthusiasm. As one of the members of the Cabinet said, ‘There is no use trying to get away from the fact that toys appeal to the heart of everyone of us no matter how old we are.’… Another member forcefully said, ‘The Toy Industry must be preserved.’”

Role model or tool of oppression? Love her or hate her, Barbie will forever be a part of American girlhood. Robin Gerber’s 2009 Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman who Created Her traces Ruth Handler’s journey from the tenth child of Polish Jewish immigrants to co-founder of Mattel, inventor of Barbie, cancer survivor, and beyond. Tanya Lee Stone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us delves into the sociological side of Barbie’s story (a topic that seems as timeless as Barbie herself).

Erector Set, Class of 1998

Once upon a time, our great nation was at war. Americans were asked to make many sacrifices to help the war effort—to spend less and waste less—and to not buy any presents for their children for Christmas. Then, a hero descended upon Washington, DC, and with common sense talk and a bag full of toys, convinced the government to let the children have their Christmas after all. If that doesn’t make you want to read The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, the Man who Saved Christmas by Bruce Watson, I don’t know what will!

Frisbie's Pies, pie pan, about 1950. The Strong, Rochester, New York.As the story goes, employees at the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, eagerly anticipated their lunch breaks, when they could indulge in tossing the pie tins back and forth in the parking lot. So many pans were flung into the Pequonnock River near the bakery that owner Joseph P. Frisbie began to require deposits on his tins to ensure they made their way back into the plant for re-use.

Frisbee, Class of 1998

What do a pie pan, a cookie tin cover, and a woven basket lid have in common? They all could be precursors to the flying disk or the Frisbee, as it is commonly known today. The original World Frisbee Champion Victor A. Malafronte takes readers on a light-hearted spin through the origins of the game and its flight into Ultimate Frisbee, disc golf, and other competitive sports in The Complete Book of Frisbee: The History of the Sport and the First Official Price Guide.

Monopoly, Class of 1998

Landlords Game, patent (LeRoy Howard), The Strong, Rochester, New York. Monopoly, the most popular board game in history, began life as The Landlord's Game in 1904. Elizabeth Magie devised the game to point out the social pitfalls of unequal wealth among people. But instead, players greedily collected huge piles of money and property, delighting in opponents’ financial troubles. Circulated informally at first, the game only gained popularity when Pennsylvanian Charles Darrow produced the first commercial version in 1934. By that time, several changes had worked their way into Magie's educational tool. Players could raise rents by “building” houses and hotels, and creating a “monopoly” of properties allowed incredibly steep rents.

During the Great Depression, a down-on-his-luck salesman created a board game at his humble kitchen table that took the world by storm and made him a millionaire. Nice story. But the rags-to-riches tale of Charles Darrow and Monopoly is not quite that simple. In Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How It Got that Way, former Parker Brothers executive and Monopoly expert Philip E. Orbanes traces the game’s origins from the brainchild of a Quaker activist to the celebration of capitalism we know it as today. If you want a monopoly on Monopoly’s history, consult the Philip E. Orbanes Papers and the LeRoy Howard Papers at the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play and Mary Pilon’s 2015 book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal behind the World’s Favorite Board Game.

Bicycle, Class of 2000

What has two wheels and was once considered the single greatest threat to an oppressive patriarchal society? The bicycle! Margaret Guroff traces the bicycle’s role in America’s social history, from the suffrage and early women’s rights movement to road paving to mountain biking and bike shares in The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. And, please, share the road!

Jigsaw Puzzle, Class of 2002

Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms, jigsaw puzzle, 1766, The Strong, Rochester, New York. John Spilsbury, a map maker in London, England in the 1760s, was the first to commercialize jigsaw puzzle making. Spilsbury pasted his maps onto thin mahogany boards, then used a handheld fret saw with a very fine blade to cut them into pieces along political boundaries. He marketed these “dissected maps” as educational playthings to aristocrats whose children needed to learn geography—vital preparation for their future roles in governing the British Empire. Spilsbury's 1766 “Europe Divided Into Its Kingdoms” is believed to be the earliest jigsaw puzzle in existence.

What do Bill Gates, Stephen King, and Queen Elizabeth II have in common? They are all avid jigsaw puzzle players! What began as an educational tool to teach geography transformed into a popular activity during the Great Depression. Renowned puzzle expert Anne D. Williams puts the story together in The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History.  

Scrabble, Class of 2004

Stefan Fatsis has ventured deep within a competitive and brilliant subculture that most of us didn’t realize existed—and he lived to tell about it! In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players, Fatsis interweaves the history of Scrabble with the personal account of his quest to hold his own against the best Scrabble players in the country. The world of Scrabble has also been explored in Letterati: An Unauthorized Look at Scrabble and the People that Play It by Paul McCarthy and Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground by John D. Williams, Jr., former executive director of the National Scrabble Association.

Easy-Bake Oven, Class of 2006

The May 14, 1965 issue of Life magazine featured a cover story on “The Craze and Menace of Skateboards,” bringing the sport and culture to the general public’s attention. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Mix equal parts of innovation, economics, consumerism, and marketing into a bowl and pour into a tiny pan. Place pan under a light bulb and wait for 50 years or so. Or you can read Light Bulb Baking: A History of the Easy-Bake Oven by Todd Coopee for the story behind the Easy-Bake Oven. If you still can’t get enough of that “ding!”, you can try your hand at the 1998 Baker of the Year recipe for Toffee Trifle Cake or Bobby Flay’s Queso Fundido with Roasted-Poblano Vinaigrette as found in The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet by David Hoffman.

Skateboard, Class of 2008

Skateboarding is not a crime! But not reading Stalefish: Skateboard Culture from the Rejects that Made It by Sean Mortimer should be. Mortimer interviews skateboarding pioneers and legends—from Jim Fitzpatrick to Tony Hawk—about what drew them to the sport and what it was like for them to experience the evolution of skateboarding.  

Rubik’s Cube, Class of 2014

MtDewshine map (PlaGMaDA), The Strong, Rochester, New York. : The Play Generated Map and Document Archive (PlaGMaDA) is comprised of hand-drawn maps, notes, sketches, role-playing game character sheets, rules, game modules (both published and manuscript), published reference materials, convention information, and other documentation created by numerous players of assorted role-playing games

Monopoly is not the only game in town when it comes to legal intrigue. The Cube: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Bestselling Puzzle—Secrets, Stories, Solutions by Jerry Slocum reveals the story behind the Rubik’s Cube and the “Cube Suit” case that dragged out over five years in the 1980s. The Arthur S. Obermayer Cube Suit Collection documents Moleculon’s case against Ideal Toy Company. Slocum’s book goes beyond legal matters to include photographs of puzzles, merchandise, and the cultural phenomenon inspired by the Rubik’s Cube.

Dungeons & Dragons, Class of 2016

This year, The Strong welcomed Dungeons & Dragons into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Developed in the 1970s, D&D plunged participants into imaginary worlds of magic and monsters. It required players to role-play without a board or other defined game space, asking them to rely on their imaginations. Journalist David M. Ewalt delves into the history of the game and its profound influence on our culture in Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People who Play It. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons explores the life of the game’s inventor. If you want extra “hit points,” check out the Play Generated Map and Document Archive (PlaGMaDA) Papers. Now that your “to read” list has grown, it’s time to get started reading. And next year, there will be more toy stories to tell!  

Note: All of the books listed are available for checkout with your Monroe County Library System card from the Toy Halls of Fame exhibit at The Strong.