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.”

Remembering Educator and Play Advocate Vivian Gussin Paley, 1929–2019

Read more >

Clones in the Archives: Console and Software Cloning Practices in the Early Years of Video Games

Ian Larson, 2019 Strong Research Fellow PhD Student, University of California, Irvine; Irvine, California
Read more >

Coloring Fun: National Toy Hall of Fame Inducts Coloring Book

Read more >

Masculine Discourse, Role Playing Games, & Help Seeking—Taming Dragon Magazine

Steven Dashiell, 2019 Mary Valentine-Andrew Cosman Research Fellow PhD candidate, University of Maryland Baltimore County  
Read more >

Armchair Generals Past, Present, and Future: A Short History of Wargaming

In 2018, The Strong received a donation of thousands of artifacts, including first-edition strategy and simulation games, wargames, and role-playing games from Darwin Bromley, co-founder of Mayfair Games. The artifacts constituted the single largest gift the to the museum’s collection and will help scholars understand the importance and influence of a transitional era in games, charting their effect on the development of contemporary examples and on video games.

Read more >

Taking the Plunge: Two Pivotal Games that Set the Course of Pinball’s History

Is pinball a game of skill or a game of chance? Most people today would argue it’s a game of skill. The player chooses when to hit the ball with their flippers and some can even aim with deadeye precision at the glitzy little light-up targets that make these games so iconic. But what if we stripped that all away? No lights, no million-point multipliers, and most importantly, no flippers. Is still a game of skill when all you’re armed with is a spring-loaded plunger and the power of gravity?

Read more >

Hex Marks the Spot

Read more >

Playing in the Past

Playing in the Past Robert Whitaker 2019 G. Rollie Adams Research Fellow Research Fellow, The Waggonner Center, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, LA
Read more >

What’s Up with U-Matic?

In the beginning (or at least in the late 19th century), there was film. Capturing moving images and playing them back for astonished audiences at the cinema more than a century ago was magical. Though many people are still familiar with film, which has endured as a medium despite changing technologies, there are plenty of moving image formats which have been rendered obsolete over time and have found their way into the holdings of numerous libraries, archives, and museums.

Read more >

Matchbox Cars Cross the Finish Line into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Read more >

Pages