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.” 

Monsters and Marshmallows: The Allure of Breakfast Cereal Characters

I miss my favorite vampire. No, not Edward Cullen or Bill Compton—I’m in Count Chocula withdrawal.

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The Squirrel Says “Go Fish”

Some 135 years ago, four squirrels romping merrily through the woods met an unfortunate end. But, fortunately for us, those squirrels found a place in a playful diorama in the museum’s collections. Situated in a well-decorated parlor, the four squirrels are now posed in an eternal game of cards. That made them a perfect illustration for the induction of playing cards into the National Toy Hall of Fame a month ago. But before the diorama could go out on exhibit, it required conservation treatment—cleaning and stabilization of the scene prior to photography and display.

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Advertising Real-World Products in Video Games

Whether the advertisements we see all around us are the brainchilds of Madison Avenue or of the local lawn care company, we cannot seem to dodge the onslaught. And it extends well beyond traditional product placements in newspaper, radio, and television.  Corporations now place their advertisements on escalator steps, sidewalk trash receptacles, and even on restaurant bathroom stalls.

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Sixfinger, Sixfinger, Man Alive! How Did I Ever Get along with Five?

If you’re the right age and you spot Sixfinger among other Cold War spy toys on the museum’s second floor, it will bring back a flood of memories.

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X Marx the Big Spot in the Toy Industry

Some workdays at the Strong really stand out. The best days bring the National Museum of Play new and interesting toys for the collections. Recently, the museum received a donation of about 40 vintage toys (with a promise of more to come!) manufactured in the 20th century by the American toy giant Louis Marx & Company. These toys are a significant addition to the collections even though the museum already had more than 200 Marx toys. So, you ask, “If the museum has so many Marx toys, why does it need more?”

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The Changing Face of Winning in Video Games

As a child, how often did your parents remind you that how you play a game is more important than winning? I’m betting pretty often. And while that sentiment is true, let’s face it—we wanted to win. It’s human nature. But in the video game world, just beating the game isn’t always the goal. Instead, many gamers chase after that most elusive of prizes: The High Score.

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The Game of Life: A 2010 National Toy Hall of Fame Inductee

In 1960, to celebrate the firm’s 100th anniversary, Milton Bradley Company hired designer Reuben Klamer to create a new game. Looking for inspiration, Klamer turned to the company archives where he encountered one of Milton Bradley’s first games, The Checkered Game of Life.

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Video Game History in 4 Minutes

What games would you include if you had to present the history of video games in 4 minutes? That’s the challenge ICHEG exhibit designers faced when determining what to put in a montage of video game clips from the past 50 years. Each clip lasts about 10 seconds, and starting next week the video is on display in ICHEG’s eGameRevolution show at the Strong.

The CHEGheads had to decide whether to pick the most famous games or the most infamous; the best games or the most popular; the most loved or the most representative.

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Playing Cards: A 2010 National Toy Hall of Fame Inductee

Playing cards are truly ancient game-playing devices. Their earliest origins are traced to ninth-century China, where people marked leaves with symbols and spots for game play. Most scholars believe that similar handmade playthings also appeared in Egypt and India.

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Playthings Magazine Documents the History of Electronic Games

The Strong, ICHEG’s parent organization, just acquired the only complete run of Playthings magazine, a great resource for anyone interested in the history of electronic games. Started in 1903, Playthings appeared monthly and for more than a century served as the main publication for the toy and game industry.

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