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.

Play Adores a Vacuum

Hoover WindTunnel Play Vacuum, 2000, The Strong, Rochester, NY. One of the great challenges for play scholars or anyone thinking seriously about play is discerning when something is playful and when it is not. As circumstances change, boundaries shift, or meanings alter, the same action may be playful or not be playful, the same object may be a plaything or not a plaything. Play can be an elusive quarry, just when we think we have it pinned down it escapes our grasp, and when we may not even be looking for it, it might appear. 

Consider the vacuum cleaner. Most of us associate it with the drudgery of housework, the burden of chores. It seems like just about the most unplayful thing imaginable! But switch the context and the vacuum might in fact become a toy. 

This is most evident in the case of children’s play. Perhaps a boy or girl enjoys using it in order to pretend to be a grown-up. There are numerous examples in The Strong’s collections of toy vacuums that allow kids to pretend to clean the floor like mommy or daddy. But sometimes the real thing becomes the plaything. Children may want to try pushing around the vacuum to pretend they are big. After a few passes they’re usually done, and it only remains play as long as they want to do it—as soon as they’re commanded to vacuum, it magically transforms from play into a hated chore. Voluntary choice is at the root of almost all play.

Marge Simpson Vacuum, 1998, The Strong, Rochester, NY. But it’s not just kids who might play with vacuums; adults sometimes will as well. This is situational and rare, of course, but it does happen! It might be after a party when people cleaning up and still in a state of reverie from the night’s events find themselves in a playful pirouette with the vacuum cleaner(s) as they sweep up the crumbs left over from the fun. Or a person by him or herself might suddenly crank the music and begin using the vacuum cleaner as a dancing companion like Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire. Maybe while making passes on the floor, one finds oneself creating an interesting pattern on the carpet. A parent might tease a child with a vacuum cleaner (“It’s going to get you”) as he or she flees in pretend horror. Or maybe someone vacuuming might tease a cat or dog. The line between play and cruelty sometimes depends on the perspective—it’s not play for the animal but may be play for the human in the same way a cat “plays” with a mouse.

Exhibit display in Field of Play, The Strong, Rochester, NY.Manufacturers have learned that making the vacuum a sort of plaything might even help sales. The Roomba, after all, is not merely a cleaning device, it’s also an excuse to buy something fun. Vacuuming suddenly seems more enjoyable if it also involves programming a robot. It’s doubtful the job gets done any better or more quickly or more cheaply, but there’s something playful about watching the vacuum skitter across the room following some mysterious algorithm for maximum effectiveness.

 So is the vacuum cleaner a toy? No, it is fundamentally a tool. But it’s a good reminder that play has the ability to transform any activity into something fun. That’s why we have a vacuum cleaner in our Field of Play exhibit here at The Strong. In the words of Mary Poppins, “In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”

I Hope This Blog Bores You

“Only boring people get bored.”

This was my mother’s retort every time I told her I was bored. Like, so bored. Like “roll your eyes and sigh and flop down on your bed in exasperation” bored. When toys, TV, and friends fail you, it feels like the end of the world. Most of us have not experienced that uncomfortable feeling of boredom in our adult lives very often. There has always been something to do, something new to see (even if it is in the small, rectangular screen of our smartphone).

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Otherwise “Parkerized”: Oral Histories from Parker Brothers

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Preserving the LGBTQ Game Archive at The Strong

Adrienne Shaw, Director, Cultural Analytics Certificate Associate Professor, Department of Media Studies and Production Lew Klein College of Media and Communication Graduate Faculty Temple University    
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Rare Atari Cartridge is Another Clever Invention of a Video Game Pioneer

Chris Kohler, Editorial Director, Digital Eclipse

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Let’s Put on a Show!

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What was the first video game?

One of the most frequently asked questions about video game history is perhaps the simplest: what was the first video game? It’s a logical question to ask. After all, we’re always curious about these questions of primacy. Who was the first man on the moon? Neil Armstrong. Who was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic? Amelia Earhart. Who was the first person to climb Mount Everest? Well, in this case it was actually two people: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. So what was the first video game?

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Chalking Up a Win

Congratulations to sidewalk chalk for earning a place of honor among the three toys inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame on November 5, 2020. For a plaything that’s been around ever since our early ancestors were drawing on the walls of the caves they called home, that’s proof persistence earning well-deserved acclaim.

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Baby Nancy Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame

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Block by Block: Leslie Scott’s Jenga Game (or, in Swahili, Zuia kwa kuzuia: Mchezo wa Jenga wa Leslie Scott)

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Extra, Extra: Read All About Newspapers and Play

For more than a century, the newspaper trade has had to determine creative ways to prevent a decrease in circulation and to find new subscribers. In the late 1800s, the Sunday edition of newspapers began to carry art supplements, which included parlor prints and toys for kids to cut out and assemble. Art supplements proved an innovative way to build an audience—each week parents read about the next must-have paper toys in the following week’s newspaper.

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