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.

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

Matchbox No. 29 Austin A55 Cambridge Sedan, The Strong, Rochester, NY

 

Parents understand the importance of having a trick up their sleeves to distract and entertain within a moment’s notice. When I had to bring my toddler to a solemn family affair, I knew just what to slip into my pocket—a Matchbox car. It didn’t require power, it was quiet, and it was inexpensive. On November 7, 2019, Matchbox cars rolled into their place of honor in The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame.

It all began in a bombed-out pub, The Rifleman, in Tottenham, a district of North London, England. English die casters Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith (unrelated) founded Lesney Products in 1947 to produce industrial parts and, along with partner Jack Odell, began making small die-cast toys to fill slack demand during wintertime. In 1952, Odell was inspired by a rule at his daughter’s school that permitted students to only bring toys that fit inside a matchbox. Story goes that his daughter had the mischievous habit of taking spiders to school in a matchbox. Odell scaled down Lesney’s road roller toy, tucked it into a matchbox, and sent his daughter to school with it instead. The Matchbox car was born.

Plenty of toy cars existed in the 1950s, but when Lesney introduced Matchbox cars, they revolutionized the market. Lesney advertised that, with Matchboxes, children could buy for pennies “a toy that is a complete toy.” Odell visited automakers to get the latest designs and conducted historical research. He designed a machine to spray-paint the headlights on the models and another machine to mold the interiors. The dashboard dials were accurately placed, the windshields had wipers, and the interiors had ceiling hooks. Some cars had more than 100 die-cast parts. Matchbox cars passed his inspections.

Matchbox Rocky the Robot Truck, The Strong, Rochester, NY U.S. sales began a few years later, and Lesney added a Ford Customline Station Wagon to its formerly all-British fleet. In 1960, Lesney exported 70 million tiny vehicles. American kids became collectors, buying and taking 100 million Matchbox cars for a spin annually. Such success, achieved with little advertising, made Lesney Products one of England’s most profitable companies.

In 1968, Mattel roared in with Hot Wheels. Kids traded in the British product for these flashier American muscle cars. Lesney countered with the Matchbox Superfast line of cars and pumped up its advertising campaign. Lesney also diversified the designs, introduced a line of fantasy cars, and produced Disney-themed vehicles. The company’s innovations included the pressure-initiated “autosteer” and the “Rola-matics,” whereby a pin in one of the wheels caused something in the vehicle to move up and down. Despite these efforts, Matchbox’s high cost of manufacturing in England drove Lesney into bankruptcy. Universal Internal Ltd. acquired the product, formed Matchbox International, and moved most of the production to Asia.

Matchbox Motorway M-2, The Strong, Rochester, NY

Today Matchbox cars still drive sales for Mattel, the brand’s current owner, and continue to reach an eager corps of kid and adult collectors. Some of the most sought-after vehicles include an apple green Mercedes-Benz 230SL, a 1966 sea green Opel Diplomat, and a 1968  crane truck. In my role as the curator responsible for toys at The Strong, I would love to add the No. 19C green Aston Martin Racing Car, the No. 74 Mobile Refreshments Canteen, the No. 50 Ford Kennel Truck, the No. 36A Lambretta Scooter and Sidecar, and the earliest Matchbox Garage from the late 1950s. And, until my son turns 16, I will continue to appease his need for speed for less than a few dollars with new renditions of Matchbox cars.

A formula for high quality, impressive detail, and affordable prices set Matchbox apart from their competitors and fueled such an enduring success that some people continue to call a miniature car, no matter the maker, a “Matchbox.” 

Change of Dress: The Transformative Power of Dress Up

What do Cinderella, Lady Gaga, and Kate Middleton all have in common? Distinctive style. For Cinderella the right dress and the perfect pair of shoes proved to be life changing. Today, little girls everywhere own replicas of the shimmering, blue ball gown.

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Gone, But Not Forgotten: Vector Games

Although vector technology in gaming lasted less than a decade, some of the designers from the industry’s Golden Era utilized this revolutionary display technology to create classics. Bright, crisp graphics gave vector games a distinctive look and their fast-moving game play mesmerized arcade-goers who lined up to drop quarters for titles such as Space Wars, Battlezone, and Tempest.

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Trial by Board Game

Kids play with the law all the time. This summer, countless backyard games of Cops ‘n’ Robbers will end with a cornered cousin or felonious friend being dragged off—temporarily—to the hoosegow. Normally that happens without a trial—Defendants ‘n’ District Attorneys has never caught on with the small set. Even when kids do stage trials, the outcome is never in doubt: you always get a hanging judge and a dire sentence.

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Softball Summers and Left Field Lessons

I spent a large portion of my youth playing outside. Whether it was hide-and-seek in the neighborhood, running through the sprinkler in the backyard, or riding my bicycle around town, I enjoyed just about any activity that involved being outdoors. So it should come as no surprise that I liked playing softball too.

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Three Degrees of Stop-Motion in Video Games

I’m a Phillip Seymour Hoffman fan, which led me to his performance in Adam Elliot’s stop-motion film Mary and Max, which in turn caused me to think about how video games incorporate this marvelous animation technique. Typically, stop-motion involves a designer moving an inanimate object in small increments and then photographing each separate frame. When the creator plays the series of photographs in a continuous sequence, this creates the illusion of movement. Albert E. Smith and J.

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Play and the Core of Happiness

Jennifer Giambrone’s blog Nostalgia: It’s Good For You! told us about the importance of preserving memories. Our good memories remind us that we have value, that we are happy (or, at least, can be), and that life does in fact have meaning.

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Saving in Video Games

The save feature is something a lot of gamers take for granted these days. Not only can a player save directly to a home console or computer hard drive, the number of opportunities we’re given to save prove higher than ever. This makes death and dying in games a lot less stressful. A player might lose some time and experience, but going back to the last save point is an option in most games. What I find interesting is how many different ways of saving exist, and how much the feature has evolved over the years.

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The Scents of Summer

Summertime carries memories for all of us. Recently, a Consumer Reports article about sunscreens prompted me to think about the aromas that mean summer for me. Growing up long before the acronym SPF had any significance, I remember when Sea & Ski and Hawaiian Tropic marketed themselves as “suntan lotion,” a product that had more in common with basting oils than medical defense against skin damage.

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Fun, Family, and Fish: Summertime Memories

During May, when the northeast still struggles to release itself from winter’s icy grasp, I can’t help but turn my thoughts to the approaching summer months. Right around Memorial Day, bass season opens on Lake Ontario. Growing up, this annual event served as the harbinger of summer vacation.

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Saluting the Statue of Liberty

As anticipation builds for the royal newlyweds' first official North American tour, I’m reminded yet again of how beautiful Kate Middleton (er, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge) looked.

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