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.

Hunting for Treasure

Who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt?

Masquerade, The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Whether we’re children or adults, there’s something irresistible about following a trail of clues (a map makes it easier and more fun) to some hidden cache that promises untold riches. Most often treasure hunts live only in the world of fiction—Treasure Island with its memorable characters Long John Silver, Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones, and Captain Flint—set the mold that has been imitated by countless books and movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, National Treasure, and Ready Player One.

Treasure hunts have been on my mind recently for a couple of reasons. First, the owner of Jelly Belly candies announced he was reprising the giveaway from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory by hiding a golden ticket for searchers to find and potentially win a candy factory. Second, I was cleaning out the large supply of children’s books at home and came across my childhood copy of Masquerade, a book that inspired treasure seekers far and wide to try to decipher the messages encoded in the book of the same name. I hadn’t thought about Masquerade in a long time, and it turned out that there was more than one mystery wrapped in this story.

Artist Kit Williams illustrated and authored Masquerade, which was published in 1979, on the dare to make a children’s book that was different than anything that had been done before. In the pictures and text he embedded clues that promised to lead to an 18-carat gold jeweled rabbit that he had buried somewhere in the English countryside. I lived in Connecticut, but it didn’t stop me and my older brother from scouring the book for clues to try and solve the puzzles. We failed of course, but so did everyone else until 1982 when Ken Thompson solved the puzzles and discovered the rabbit.

The Secret, The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Ken Thompson then used some of the money and fame associated with it to co-found with John Guard a computer game company, Haresoft. Haresoft’s first and only product was a two-part game called Hareraiser that promised players that embedded in the game were clues to finding the rabbit from Masquerade. The game was universally panned and the company failed. That would seem to be the end of the story.

And yet over time it turned out there was further mystery involved, and like many a good treasure hunt story a rogues’ gallery of suspect characters. It turned out that Ken Thomas was in fact not a real person but a pseudonym for Dugald Thompson. Thompson was the friend of another man, John Guard, the co-founder of Haresoft. Guard had been dating Veronica Robertson, the ex-girlfriend of Kit Williams himself. They discovered the jeweled rabbit with the help of some metal detectors and Robertson’s tip that they should look on Ampstead Hill, a site she had visited with Williams.

Masquerade inspired other true life treasure hunts. In 1982, for example, the book The Secret: A Treasure Hunt put seekers on the quest of 12 treasure boxes supposedly buried around the United States. Not all have been found, so if you feel up to the challenge, you can track this down and perhaps discover the treasure. But watch out for villains along the way, for no true treasure is found easily!

Creativity in the Time of Quarantine

While recent world events may be causing many of us to feel uncertain—or even stuck—as most businesses, restaurants, and entertainment venues remain closed indefinitely, the circumstances seem to be fueling something much bigger: a global tidal wave of creativity.

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Domestic Hobbies: Flattening the Curve from Home

It feels so long ago when I last wrote about domestic hobbies as play. It was indeed a different world—if we told our past selves what our lives look like now, we wouldn’t believe ourselves.

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Toy Fair 2020: Things That Make You Go Eww

In 2018, the toy industry saw a significant increase in toys related to potty humor. Some critics speculated that this was based on the popularity of the smiling poop emoji on the iPhone, while others associated the trend with the new generation of parents raised on South Park’s Mr. Hankey, The Simpsons, and Family Guy. Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting, noted that the sensory experience of using the bathroom combined with the “hush-hush privacy and secrecy” creates the opportune moment for children to get a reaction from adults.

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Michigan in New York

Mary Valentine The Strong Museum Trustee  

When I was a kid, Sundays were my favorite day of the week, because my dad was home (he worked Monday through Saturday) and we got to play the card game Michigan.

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Playing with Almost Nothing

In these days of lockdowns and social distancing, resourcefulness has become a watchword in so many facets of our lives. All of us are working to become a little more adept at making the most of what’s immediately at hand in our homes. Fortunately, when it comes to play, sometimes the primary raw material turns out to be ingenuity—something that doesn’t require a trip to the store or an online purchase.

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A Soft Spot for Blanket Forts

You look up from your work email after hearing muffled giggles and the sounds of shuffling furniture, with a vague feeling that every single blanket in your house is being dragged to a central location. Don’t be alarmed, though—it’s just someone building a blanket fort!

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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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