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.” 

Classic Contenders

Excitement is building around the Strong as we lead up to this year’s induction of new toys into the National Toy Hall of Fame. The toys in this year’s slate of 12 nominees demonstrate all the qualities necessary to earn a place of honor with other classics.

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Video Game Art

Roger Ebert once said “video games can never be art.” He compared video games to competitive sports, because all these activities involve a winner and a loser. In contrast, Psychology Today blogger David Lundberg Kenrick explored aesthetic philosopher Dennis Dutton’s theory of art and applied it to how people view video games. Dutton says art appreciation is linked to several evolutionary factors including depictions of environmental cues, solving adaptive problems, and expression of sexually selected traits.

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Funny Papers: Spoofing the News

Playing with words and images can be funny: joke-telling, trickery, and satire allow us to be subversive without the repercussions that may accompany more malicious behavior. At seven or eight years old, my best friend and I produced a fake weekly newspaper. We pasted school portraits alongside our bylines and painstakingly crafted gossip columns, “horror-scopes,” quizzes, and bizarre feature stories about our classmates.

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Video Game Horrors: Surviving Resident Evil

It’s nearing midnight, the witching hour, on October 31. The Hunter's Moon is shining brightly through your curtains, providing the only light in an otherwise dark room. The house is silent, except for the occasional sound of an owl hooting outside your window. You feel like the only person alive in the world.

No, this isn’t the opening of a horror story, but is the best setting in which to play one of the greatest survival horror video games of all time: Resident Evil.

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Capturing your Past for our Future

In my May 12 blog, I noted that the museum will soon be embarking on an important project—collecting play histories from all of you. These firsthand recollections and stories will help us bring new life to the objects in the Strong’s collection and will add a new dimension to the meaning of play for us all.

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ICHEG's Approach to Collecting and Preserving Video Games

Museums stabilize artifacts by storing them at proper temperatures and humidity and away from damaging light. Objects properly preserved—like an old doll or board game—will last, for all practical purposes, for perpetuity.

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The Flying Sandbox

When I was very young, I was given a small book called The Flying Sandbox.

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Food, Fashion, Florence, and Fooling Around

Here’s a little story about how foreign travel is the kind of play that keeps you on your toes.

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Video Games and the Cute Factor

In the 2006 New York Times article “The Cute Factor,” Natalie Angier investigated how cuteness affects society. She wrote “scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute.” Cute cues include roundness, floppy limbs, a side-to-side gait, vulnerability, and need, among others. After reading Angier’s article, I realized cute factors affect my game selections.

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Paper to Video: A Puzzling Game

Recently, as I competed in a group online challenge, a player presented me with the following puzzle:

Blank Picross Puzzle

 

I had no concept or instructions of how the puzzle worked, so I turned to my husband and asked if he had any idea. He exclaimed, “It’s Picross!”

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