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.

Cute as Button

Flagler Museum buttons, 2016. Photo courtesy of the author. For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by buttons. Often small and unassuming, these objects may blend into their surroundings and often go largely unnoticed. And yet they serve a critical purpose to hold things together or keep things in place. It may be a stretch, but I tend to think my love of buttons may be a character trait I inherited—genetically or otherwise—from my grandmother. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she had the quiet demeanor and strong work ethic often associated with New Englanders of her generation. She was talented in many ways, cooking, pressing flowers for lampshades and, of course, sewing. That meant she never tossed a button out, but rather kept each one, carefully stowing them away in an old silver coffee can kept on the bottom shelf of the sewing closet in her quaint lakeside home. Whenever we would visit, my first priority was to retrieve the button tin from the closet, immediately dump the entire thing onto the middle of the living room floor, and carefully comb through the contents to see if anything new had been added since my last visit. Looking back, it is unlikely that I actually noticed any new buttons unless they were exceptionally large or ornate (not exactly grandma’s style), but there were certainly a few tried and true favorites that I always delighted in finding.

Corduroy plush toy, about 1990, gift of Carolyn Vang Schuler. The Strong, Rochester, New York. So what it is about buttons that intrigues us? Is it the multitude of colors and shapes? Is it the array of sizes, from the teeny tiny to the big and bold? Buttons are by nature functional but have become a significant element of design over the years. A strategically placed, well designed button can act as the striking detail that makes a garment special or gives it the finishing touch. Or, if you are Corduroy the bear, a missing button on your overalls can lead to quite the adventure and a major life change. Alternatively, buttons can replace a missing eye (or two) on a favorite toy. Of course, they also make great crafting supplies for people of all ages, proving useful for making flowers, colorful creatures, jewelry, art, or anything else imaginable. Artist Tara Donovan uses vast quantities of common household objects to create sculptures that often fill an entire gallery. The result is astonishing. The transformative power of repetition on a grand scale brings simple items to life, captivating audiences. Among Donovan’s favorite materials? Buttons. Her popular piece, Bluffs, has been exhibited at numerous museums and galleries since the early 2000s, and showcases buttons in an entirely new and different light.  

Button enthusiasts and collectors are hardly alone. The Flagler Museum in St. Augustine, Florida, has a large collection, many of which are framed and displayed along a wall for guests to marvel at. A quick internet search for “button museum” brings up an array of roadside attractions dedicated to the tiny treasures, including that of the self-proclaimed Button King, Dalton Stevens in South Carolina whose collection began in 1983 and now occupies an entire hangar. Even if you don’t have an upcoming road trip planned, there are plenty of pictures to enjoy with just—wait for it—the click of a button.

A modern take on grandma's "button tin", 2020. Photo courtesy of the author. When my grandmother died in the late 1990s, “the button tin” made a source for fond recollections as we gathered with family. While much has changed in my life during the more than 20 years since then, it seems my affinity for buttons has not. Over the years, each time I found a rogue button I would set it aside and think to myself That might be useful, best hold on to it. The result was countless buttons stowed here and there, until one day, not so very long ago, I thought it would probably make more sense to put them all into one spot—so into a plain glass jar they went. Only when I put the lid on and placed the jar on a shelf did I realize what I’d created:  my very own “button tin.” I like to think my grandmother would be proud. Now if only I could sew. . . .

Hot Wheels: A 2011 National Toy Hall of Fame Inductee

I was eight years old in 1968 and, like many of my friends, I played with toy cars. That year, Mattel introduced toy autos called Hot Wheels. Unlike the toy cars before them, Hot Wheels rolled really fast either downhill or with a touch of a finger.

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Edible to Elaborate: Holiday Gifts Then and Now

The holiday season is once again upon us. With seasonal songs filling the airwaves and retailers decorated with all that sparkles, I am amazed at how the holidays have managed to find their way back again so soon—this time more expensive than ever.

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Do You Hear What I Hear in This Video Game?

Last month, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered aired a piece titled “Why Do We Hate The Sound of Fingernails On a Chalkboard?” Musicologist Michael Oehler reported that this sound produces a frequency that reaches the most sensitive spot of the human ear and creates an amplified “open ear gain.” He further explained that some of our reaction is also emotional.

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The Open Road

Getting behind the wheel can be stressful. Congestion, construction, and detours are no day at the beach . . . especially when all we want to do is make it to the beach. Most of us enjoy a good road trip, but with so many obstacles taking the air out of our tires, who can blame us for just wanting to get from Point A to Point B? What happened to the days when simply riding in an automobile was cause for celebration, and the journey was as exciting as the destination?

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Five Games Contending for Spike TV’s Top Prize

Numerous organizations annually honor top video games. Spike TV will soon announce its “Game of the Year” prize during the network’s Video Game Awards show. Every gamer I’ve spoken to agrees that 2011 proved an amazing year for games, both in terms of increased graphical capabilities and storyline developments. The Spike TV VGA Advisory Council, made up of video game journalists from Game Informer Magazine, Kotaku, Joystiq, and Wired, among others, choose the top five contenders.

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Interior Design as Play

My three younger siblings and I loved playing outside and going on adventures in our large backyard and adjacent woods.

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Gridiron Memories

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Football teams all across the country are well into their fall schedules with countless fans flocking to see their favorite clashes, anticipating the season’s end with that American tradition—the Super Bowl.

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Before Barbie

If you believe, as I did, that Barbie has a flair for fashion unparalleled among dolls, what with her sparkling, sequined, and infinite polyester outfits, then you’re in for a bit of a shock.

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Video Games Rock Classical Music

When I was eleven years old, my dad took me to see the Rolling Stones Voodoo Lounge concert. The stage erupted with inflatable skeletons, giant Jagger-like cartoon lips flashed across a jumbo screen, and Mick Jagger strutted across stage. I was sold—it was rock n’ roll and I not only liked it, I loved it. I still do.

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Play through the Centuries

Recently, The Strong acquired a rare and important early printed book illustration. The image came to our attention when Gordon Burghardt used it to illustrate his article, “The Comparative Reach of Play and Brain: Perspective, Evidence, and Implications,” in the Winter 2010 issue of The Strong’s American Journal of Play.

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