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.

Let’s Put on a Show!

Photograph of Wendy Tribelhorn with Santa Claus puppet, 1962, gift of William Tribelhorn. The Strong, Rochester, New York. When I was growing up and my sister and I got together with our favorite cousins, there was hardly anything we liked better than putting on a show for the grown-ups. As I recall, the five of us kids would descend to our basement rec room where we’d cook up a script, cast the parts, devise costumes from the dress-up box, and practice our dramatic extravaganza. Meanwhile, I suspect our parents were upstairs rolling their eyes and bracing themselves for the semi-torture of sitting through our amateur theatrical. But for the kids at least, the pleasure of the endeavor was primarily in the creative and collaborative process, not in the performance itself which tended to be on the short side and probably got lukewarm reviews from the audience (good sports though the adults were to sit through what we’d concocted).

Script, 1852. The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Those childhood memories got revived recently as I was exploring The Strong museum’s collection and I encountered a photo of a girl inside a homemade theater alongside a Santa Claus hand puppet. I especially like the hand-crayoned backdrop behind them, obviously the product of some industrious kid. All of which made me think that these days with a hiatus from school classrooms might provide an ideal opportunity for kids and grown-ups to engage in a little homespun theatrical magic.

Children have been putting on shows of one sort or another for centuries and probably even longer. One of the earlier home theatrical items I spotted in the museum’s holdings is a script titled Webb’s Juvenile Drama: Robin Hood and the Merry Men of Sherwood Forest from 1852. It calls itself “a Drama in Two Acts,” which sounds somewhat more serious and ambitious than my cousins and I ever were. You probably don’t have a spare script sitting around your house, but don’t let that hold you back. My cousins and I tended to do endless productions spoofing The Wizard of Oz, a story all of us pretty much knew by heart. And I’m guessing there are fairy tales, nursery rhymes, or other stories in your own repertoire that could serve as the basis for your show.

Sesame Street Theater, 1982, a gift from the Jim Henson Family. The Strong, Rochester, New York. What’s going to serve as your theatrical venue? Sheets over a clothesline or rope can make fine curtains for a performance and lawn chairs or the living room sofa could work well for the audience. Or you could go smaller scale and carve an opening in the side of a cardboard box to act as your proscenium. Toy manufacturers have a long history of producing theaters for kids to use. An 1850 printed toy called the Pictorial Review Theater provided a stage, backdrops, and all the characters you’d need to act out the story of Little Red Riding Hood (another story that most of us easily remember). More than a century later, the Sesame Street Theater makes clear on its box that “puppets are not included” and the theater’s construction makes it look like a case of “some assembly required”—those words that strike fear in the heart of every parent at birthdays and other gift-giving holidays.

Photograph of Peggy Granger and her puppets, 1955. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Have you thought about who to cast as your show’s stars? Maybe you’re ready to be an all-purpose writer-director-performer triple threat. Or perhaps this is just the opportunity that your hand puppets have been auditioning for. Puppets were inducted into The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame in 2015, in recognition of their timeless value as inspirations for creative play. Don’t have easy access to a puppet or three? Then it’s time to enlist your stuffed animals for the cause. Or maybe you want to make construction paper characters you can mount on those stirrer sticks that might be hanging around from the last time you bought a gallon of latex paint.

Now that I’ve piqued your interest in becoming a theatrical producer or performer, I hope you’ll carry through to put on a show of your own. And, when you do, don’t neglect to share your experiences with The Strong’s Play Stories project, dedicated to gathering, preserving, and sharing stories, images, and videos about play in 2020. So gather the cast, turn on the spotlights, curtains up—let the show begin!

Armchair Generals Past, Present, and Future: A Short History of Wargaming

In 2018, The Strong received a donation of thousands of artifacts, including first-edition strategy and simulation games, wargames, and role-playing games from Darwin Bromley, co-founder of Mayfair Games. The artifacts constituted the single largest gift the to the museum’s collection and will help scholars understand the importance and influence of a transitional era in games, charting their effect on the development of contemporary examples and on video games.

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Taking the Plunge: Two Pivotal Games that Set the Course of Pinball’s History

Is pinball a game of skill or a game of chance? Most people today would argue it’s a game of skill. The player chooses when to hit the ball with their flippers and some can even aim with deadeye precision at the glitzy little light-up targets that make these games so iconic. But what if we stripped that all away? No lights, no million-point multipliers, and most importantly, no flippers. Is still a game of skill when all you’re armed with is a spring-loaded plunger and the power of gravity?

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Hex Marks the Spot

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Playing in the Past

Playing in the Past Robert Whitaker 2019 G. Rollie Adams Research Fellow Research Fellow, The Waggonner Center, Louisiana Tech University, Ruston, LA
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What’s Up with U-Matic?

In the beginning (or at least in the late 19th century), there was film. Capturing moving images and playing them back for astonished audiences at the cinema more than a century ago was magical. Though many people are still familiar with film, which has endured as a medium despite changing technologies, there are plenty of moving image formats which have been rendered obsolete over time and have found their way into the holdings of numerous libraries, archives, and museums.

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

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A Magical Gathering in the National Toy Hall of Fame

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A ROM of One’s Own: Snapshots from the Games-for-Girls Movement

Jana Rosinski 2018 Strong Research Fellow Syracuse University, NY

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My Week with Brian: A Conversation with the Collected Works of Brian Sutton-Smith

Alec S. Hurley, 2018 Strong Research Fellow PhD Student, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX

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A Laboratory for Video Game Preservation

In 2006, when we began our efforts at The Strong to preserve the history of video games, we knew we were onto an important subject, but we did not truly foresee the vast array of challenges that we would face in preserving video games. Over the years as we founded the International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) and grew our collection to more than 60,000 video games and related objects we’ve learned quite a bit about how to care for these materials.

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