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.

Transatlantic Play

Amy Drevenstedt, The Flight of Charles A. Lindbergh, 1928. David Rumsey Collection.

There are very few global “cartographic events” in human history—feats of transportation that require the immediate making and dispersal of new maps. Columbus’s arrival in the New World was one. The moon landing was another. To this short list we might add Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic crossing. In 1927, he became the first to fly alone from the continental United States to continental Europe (New York–Paris).

Lindbergh’s various flight exploits are often and understandably overshadowed by his future dabbling with fascism and the infamous kidnapping of one of his sons (the “Lindbergh baby”). At the time, however, his transatlantic feat stood as a milestone, with an immense impact on civilian flight. One estimate suggests that in the months after his venture, Americans purchased more than 8,000 airplanes for private use. And just as aeronautic exploits were transformed into spectacles and games in the balloon era, so they were in the so-called “leather helmet and goggles era” of open cockpit flying. Personally, I prefer to call it the “bearskin suit and cigarettes” era, both of which Lindbergh was known to use as he flew.

A hazard card from Lindy: The New Flying Game, Improved Edition, Parker Brothers, 1927. Lindbergh lingers, culturally. People still dance the eponymous Lindy Hop. But the steps to that dance are merely the historical aftershocks of what was once a Lindbergh mania, executed in song, cinema, and sport. The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine has a showcase of their collection of Lindbergh-inspired games. The design of such games is visually inventive, but it is one thing to see the games and quite another to play them. I came to The Strong, which has a wide array of flight games in its collection, in order to look inside the boxes, see what made them play, and get to the bottom of what they borrowed from Lindbergh’s flight—and indeed, from flight in general.

Some of these games featured Lindbergh in the title, such as Lindy: The New Flying Game; others had more oblique references—fly by night games that aimed to profit from the Lindbergh phenomenon indirectly, such as Captain Hop Across Jr. These games took much from Lindbergh’s flight: above all, they borrowed the map of the journey, which had been published widely in newspapers and magazines. Almost all the Lindbergh games in The Strong collection employed a board that doubled as a map. Of course, the crossover between map and board game is large, with Risk being the best-known contemporary example; but maps borrowed from games, as well. For instance, in Amy Drevenstedt’s commemorative map, The Flight of Charles A. Lindbergh, the border panels narrate, as though in a game sequence, the preparation, flight, landing, and homecoming of Lindbergh.

Aero Race, Bar-Zim, about 1930. Atop these play maps, the games introduced qualities of randomness; or, to borrow the French term that implies a greater sense of danger: hasard. The trials that Lindbergh faced were routinely translated into elements of chance on the board. In Aero Race, three weighted pieces representing Lindbergh, Clarence Chamberlin, and Richard E. Byrd (also early transatlantic aviators) race across the ocean from one monument to another, Statue of Liberty to Eiffel Tower. Their movement is erratic, difficult for the player to control, just as Lindbergh’s actual flight was turbulent, its orientation interfered with by magnetic storms. The player twitches, rather than glides, across the ocean.

We: The Magnetic Flying Game, Parker Brothers, 1928. Named for Lindbergh’s autobiography, We: The Magnetic Flying Game developed “an entirely new principle in Aviation Games”—the living room becomes the board. Players use magnets on strings to manipulate miniature airplanes from airfield (couch) to airfield (chair). Not unlike carnival fishing games of old, the magnets are not quite powerful enough to carry their load and sustain the flight of the airplanes. They regularly fall into the sea (carpet). Once again, the game mirrors the hazards of flight, and turns aerial derring-do into transatlantic play.

Communication and transportation are, as media historians often remind us, closely related. Newspapers and railways, for instance, expanded together in the 19th century, newspaper companies paying for railway track to help extend their distribution: the speed of one dependent upon the speed of the other. In the case of games and flight, there was an analogous situation, albeit in miniature. Lindbergh’s achievement challenged an entire series of games to incorporate his dizzying, difficult mechanics. Games, too, danced the Lindy Hop.

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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Examining 21st Century STEM–related Toys and their Impact on Girls

If someone asked you to name the types of toys girls played with, what would you say? Perhaps you would shout out “Barbies” or “baby dolls” or “pink cuddly toys,” right? Those types of toys have long been associated with girls, while trucks, cars, and blue toys made from hard plastic have been associated with boys. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to understand why girls are not attracted to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

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Little Boxes: Plasticville Plays at Post-World War II Suburbia

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