Play Stuff Blog

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.

The importance of Playthings magazine for legal research should not be underestimated since each issue included a monthly report on toy patents, that was ultimately expanded to also include trademark applications and a regular update on intellectual property rights.

Furthermore, the magazine conveyed the possibility of regulatory mechanisms to solve disputes among toy manufacturers and dealers beyond the typical court litigation. As far as I am aware, The Strong museum is the only place in the world where the complete set of Playthings—covering more than a centuryis held.

During my time at the museum, I found it fascinating to navigate the constitution of the industry in a chronological manner in order to follow the ways in which it managed to overcome different contingencies and crises. The research proved to be invaluable for a book project I am carrying out with Professor Kathy Bowrey from the University of New South Wales (Australia) on the making of intellectual property in the 20th century. We are aiming to combine this material with our findings related to the U.K. and Australian research we have already carried out.

Erector Set, about 1935.	Gift of Randi & Doug Olin and Marc & Jill Olin in memory of Stephen Olin, The Strong, Rochester, New York.This was my second time in Rochester and again, I was amazed by the knowledge and guidance from The Strong’s staff, who quickly directed me into the different histories of the U.S. toy industry. The Strong museum’s library and archives constitute an inspirational environment for those who are interested in the emergence of the toy industry.

My work with Professor Bowrey was originally conceived to focus exclusively on the U.K. toy industry, but we have realized that no single national narrative exists. Instead there is a history of global connections in which rights were transacted, releases were coordinated, and toys were made internationally.

Looking at Playthings has confirmed our suspicions. For example, our project focuses on different toy companies such as the construction toy company Meccano but my examination of Playthings revealed how it is impossible to write a history of Meccano without a reference to the firm’s U.S. struggles, such as the instances that pitted  Meccano against Gilbert's Erector Sets or the American Toy Company. 

Without my work at The Strong, those insights—and others—could not have been achieved.