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.”

Building a Settlement: German-style Games in North America

January brought the start of a new year and also the start of a new project. I began to inventory and process the Mayfair Games archival materials that were donated to The Strong museum in 2017. In an effort to learn more about the company, I started reading about the board games, card games, and role-playing games it produced. I quickly learned that Settlers of Catan, one of Mayfair Games’ most recognizable titles, not only ranks as an awesome game, but also has a history that changed the gaming industry.
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Screen Time…Then and Now

With many of us spending more time at home right now, it’s likely that our screen time—time spent in front of our televisions, laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc.— has increased a bit.

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Activity Sets: Playing with Glass, Foil, Plastic, and Goop

Spending most of my time at home with my young children has revealed that I’m not especially innovative when it comes to crafts. Thankfully, there are people willing to experiment with materials to develop activity kits and craft ideas for kids. Their work has resulted in some notable successes, as well as a few questionable developments over the years.

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Playing with Sidewalk Chalk Brings Us Together While We’re Apart

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Family Aggravation

However much you care for them, there’s no denying that families can be aggravating. That said, in my experience growing up, aggravation wasn’t an emotional response to stresses in our household—it meant Aggravation, my family’s favorite board game.

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Patience, Persistence, and Paper Craft

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Down the Rabbit Hole

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Preserving Rubber Toys

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Collection of Street Photographer Martha Cooper

The Strong recently acquired the photographica collection of world-renowned photojournalist Martha Cooper. Kodakgirl, the nickname given to Cooper by New York City B-boys and B-girls, began collecting with a focus on women with cameras and Kodak advertising in the 1970s. Her collection also grew to include photography-related postcards, valentines, snapshots, doll cameras, figures, wind-ups, play cameras, and figurines. To delve into the significance of the collection, it’s helpful to become familiar with the impact of Cooper’s own work.

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Game Saves: Unreleased Gremlins The Arcade Game by Atari

Digital Games Curator Andrew Borman uncovers the history of Atari's Gremlins The Arcade Game, from its initial conception in 1983 to its cancellation in 1985. 

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