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. . . .

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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