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. . . .

Creating Video Game Avatars

The best part about creating an avatar is that a player has free rein to become whatever or whoever she wishes. Want to become a blue-skinned troll or a pink-haired elf? Want a perfect body without setting foot in the gym? You’ve got it! Want to partake in a love story filled with knights and damsels in distress? Go for it! Limited only by her imagination, a player can create an entire persona that may or may not have anything to do with her reality.

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Let’s Give Puppets a Big Hand

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A Penny for Your Thoughts: The Golden Age of Postcards

Do you remember getting mail? Not email. Not bills. Not letters from credit card companies enthusiastically informing you that you’ve been “pre-approved!” Actual mail—a letter, a note, or a card. You know, when someone wrote you a message, adhered a stamp to it, and placed it in a mailbox, just to let you know they were thinking of you? Chances are you don’t receive this sort of mail nearly as often as you once did, likely due to the influx of digital technology, which facilitates faster, cheaper, and more instantaneous methods of communication.

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My Son’s Video Game Art and Level Design

Ashton, my five-year-old son, loves playing video games on his Nintendo Wii. His favorites include Disney Epic Mickey, Hot Wheels: Beat That!, and Wii Sports Resort; he plays the New Super Mario Bros. Wii the most. I’m also a huge fan of the game, and we often team up as Mario and Luigi in the game’s multiplayer mode to save Princess Peach from Bowser and company.

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Video Games for Halloween

Zombies, witches, vampires, monsters, and other blood curdling creatures invaded pop culture centuries ago. While I’m not big on gory thrills, I am a fan of other ghoulish delights. I fill each October calendar day with some Halloween activity. With video game titles like Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ and A Vampyre Story, I have plenty of action to fill my free-time.

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The Wheels on the Bus

Back to school can mean a lot of things. For some of us, the start of school remains inextricably linked to freshly-sharpened yellow Ticonderoga pencils and a new box of Crayola crayons.

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Steve Jobs, Breakout Pioneer

One of my favorite games in ICHEG’s collection is Atari’s 1976 arcade classic Breakout, an elegant, one-player elaboration of Pong. Players move a paddle side-to-side to keep a bouncing ball in play long enough to knock down multicolored layers of bricks. A tone sounds each time a ball strikes a brick. The ball speeds up with each successive layer of bricks, making it harder and harder to hit. Breakout is a seductive game, easy to learn, difficult to master.

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Are We There Yet?

I’ve spent a lot of time in the car this summer. And for much of that time, my six-year-old son has been my constant companion. When I was a kid, getting ready to travel involved books, crayons, paper, and a snack in a Ziploc bag.

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How Long Is a Good Video Game?

With so many video games to choose from, I often have trouble deciding how to get the most bang for my buck.

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U.S. Women’s Soccer and Abby Mania: One Fan’s Perspective

I recently joined countless others around the country and jumped on the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (U.S. WNT) bandwagon. In fact, almost everyone I encountered during the team’s amazing FIFA World Cup run seemed to be aware of the its international success. Even before the Semifinals, the U.S. WNT had already gone head-to-head against the highly rated Brazilian team in the Quarterfinals. A game-tying “header” in the 11th hour by none other than Rochester, New York’s own Abby Wambach sent the game into overtime. A shootout followed, and the U.S.

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