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. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Valentines for Trolls

Barber Valentine, 1850-1875.Sometimes it seems as if civility and kindness are in exceptionally short supply today. The Internet liberates a portion of the populace from any standards of decent behavior. As I catch myself lamenting about the dark side of human nature, it helps me to think about Valentine’s Day and bear in mind that bad behavior is nothing new. “What?!” you exclaim, “Valentine’s Day? That day of chocolates and roses for sweethearts? How do snarkiness and insults apply there?” But come with me, back to the Victorian period, and you’ll discover that our forebears weren’t always the saintly paragons we might envision.

Bustle Valentine, about 1875. Examining valentine history reveals a long tradition of malicious pranks. In the days prior to postage stamps or FedEx, it was the recipient of mail—not the sender—who paid the cost. That situation led to a popular Valentine’s Day prank of sending a box filled with rocks or bricks to someone you disliked. When the recipient anted up the price of shipment for a heavy package, they’d then open the box to discover the weighty and worthless contents. Dissed again!

People without such resourcefulness in pranks could turn to commercial cards that offered the sting of an insulting rhyme attached to an unflattering illustration. By some estimates, these so-called “vinegar valentines” accounted for 50 percent of valentine sales. Anyone with an ax to grind could pick up a comical valentine card targeted at a very particular person—be that a barber inclined to upselling, an overdressed woman, or a lazy salesman—and let them know precisely the nature of their flaws of character or appearance. And of course, these nasty cards were always sent without a signature—a forerunner of Internet anonymity. 

Salesman Valentine, about 1920. Reflecting on our present circumstances, I think it’s probably better that people a century ago or more restricted their anonymous revenge and shaming to a single day out of the year, as odd as it may seem that they chose Valentine’s Day to express their scorn and aggression. Optimist that I am, I can hope that people today return to that earlier tradition and restrict themselves to venting on just February 14. Meanwhile, the pessimistic side of me will hope that my mailbox and inbox stay free from the zing of any vinegar valentines.

Outlook Good: Magic 8 Ball Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame

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Switches and Screens: Researching Video Game Interface Design

In Will Wright’s game design documents

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The Strong Acquires Monster Toys

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Which Came First—The Comic or the Toy?

Since their inception in the early 20th century, comic books have been synonymous with American youth and playfulness. The colorful, action-packed stories in the pages of comics translated into creative play in the backyard with capes and masks and into elaborate worlds scaled to the action figures on the playroom rug. As comics and action figures evolved, lines became blurred: which came first, the comic or the toy?

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Not Just Fan Fiction: The Allen Hammack D&D Collection

My first library card was a small rectangle made of royal blue cardstock, with the handwritten number “9555” in the top right corner. This very valuable document allowed me to check out up to six items at a time from my town’s library. Ever the opportunist, I always checked out the first six books that I picked up, knowing that I could come back anytime (!) and swap them for a new batch. This method of binge-reading let me plow through entire runs of some of my favorite children’s (and young adult) series while in elementary school.

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Documenting the Skylanders Story

It began with a phone call from Paul Reiche III last summer.

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Dolls in Focus

In October 2017, I had the chance to be at The Strong National Museum of Play as a research fellow collecting data for my Dolls in Focus project aimed at revisiting and expanding the findings of my previous linguistic investigation on dolls’ language. Surprisingly, what I thought would primarily be an exploratory incursion into dolls’ universe from an academic perspective turned out to be a rather touching and personal experience that allowed me to revisit my own childhood memories.

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Sidewalk Surfing: The Gnarly History of Skateboarding Part II (1973 to 1991)

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Game Saves: Preserving the First LGBTQ Electronic Game

Floppy diskettes are an incredibly volatile medium. Available in multiple shapes, sizes, and formats, the magnetic disks were often used, rewritten, and eventually tossed aside as new methods of data storage arrived. Disks by their very nature are disposable, and younger generations may only recognize a floppy disk as a save icon. With some experts estimating the lifespan of a floppy disk at 10 to 20 years under the best conditions, many pieces of software, including games, are at risk.

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Sturdily Built: The Playful Longevity of the Cardboard Box.

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