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.

Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.

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Teetotums

“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.

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Rack ‘Em Up

I grew up in a small town with a population of roughly 5,000. It may not look it now, but it was once booming with activity and businesses. A basket factory and a canning factory ranked among the major employers. Then the train quit making stops in town. Without convenient access to supplies, factories slowly closed and the population dwindled. But what became of the train station and the hotel attached to it? That is a key part of my childhood.

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Preserving Carol Shaw’s Trailblazing Video Game Career

Carol Shaw, the first widely recognized female game designer and programmer, has donated to The Strong a collection of console games, printed source code, design documents, sketches, reference materials, and promotional objects representing games she created for Atari, Inc.

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

Since last summer, you may have noticed small groups of millennials walking briskly toward landmarks surrounded by people staring intently at their smartphone screens. Every now and then, cries of delight or disdain erupt from the gatherers. “Oh good, a Snorlax!” someone murmurs appreciatively. “Just another Rattata!” another person groans.

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Playing the "Good War"

The recent decision by the producers of Call of Duty:WWII to return the game’s setting to World War II—after a detour into modern warfare and futuristic science fiction—reflects not only the franchise’s success with this period but also the fact that no other war has so captured the imagination of playmakers and players.

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