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.

Pin the What?!

The Donkey Party Game, 1901. The Strong, Rochester, New York.What sort of party games stick in your memory? No, not the ones from your teen years which involved getting your first kiss. I’m thinking of the classic party games for children’s birthday parties. And one of the top party games for that demographic—at least in my childhood—would have to be Pin the Tail on the Donkey. The earliest donkey pinning games in The Strong museum’s collection come from the 1890s, which aligns with accounts from the internet (because you can always trust that, right?) saying that the game originated from rural areas in Wisconsin in the 1880s, when it seems to have just been called the Donkey Party Game.

Pin the Tail on the Donkey, about 1965. Gift of Shawn Utz in memory of Otto and Joan Utz, The Strong, Rochester, New York. The box cover of a Parker Brothers version of the game from about 1965 makes clear the true appeal of all the pin-the-tail games—they provided a wonderful opportunity to humiliate your friends, siblings, or classmates—whoever was there at your birthday party. The true hilarity came from blindfolding that willing victim, spinning them around, and then sending them off toward the donkey target on the wall, eagerly anticipating that the tail would wind up on the poor animal’s head, floating in the background—any place except where it belongs.

Grand Old Party game, about 1890. The Strong, Rochester, New York. What you might not guess unless you’re a curator at the biggest toy museum in the world is that donkeys are far from the only subject matter for pin-the-tail games. If you’re of a political bent—because what child isn’t—you could opt for a game that involved an elephant, the symbol of the Republican Party, in the Grand Old Party game. In comparison to its overall size, an elephant’s tail is pretty negligible, so the pinning items for the game consist of bags of peanuts. Which, in turn, has led The Strong’s curators to jokingly refer to this version as Pin the Peanuts on the Pachyderm.

Probably more to the true taste of kids is Our Cinderella Party. The illustration on linen shows a pensive Cinderella resting from her labors by the fireplace with her broom and dustpan for sweeping up the ashes. She’s much humbler looking to my eye than the standard glamorous Disney princess Cinderella, even before she gets spruced up to go to the ball. However, the best part for me is that this Cinderella is wearing what seem to be a very early version of UGG boots, although the challenge is to place one of the golden pumps on her bare foot.

The Tandem Party, 1897. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Equally interesting is The Tandem Party from 1897, the time of a nationwide craze for bicycling. Before this period, only a few daring cyclists were willing to teeter down rutted pavements on treacherous high-wheeled bicycles with no brakes. With the advent of what was called the safety bicycle—with two wheels of the same size, more comfortable seats, and useful brakes—bicycling became an outdoor activity for everyone, boys and girls, women and men. Bicycling could even be a social or romantic activity with a tandem bicycle and the right bicycling partner. The background for The Tandem Party shows a mustachioed chap on the back seat of a tandem. He’s obviously looking for the right bicycling mate and the players aspire to get a lovely bicycling lady with a practical knee-length skirt (so it wouldn’t get caught in the chain or the wheels) onto the front seat of the bicycle.

Cowboy Party Game, about 1955. The Strong, Rochester, New York. Last but certainly not least is the Cowboy Party Game. American popular culture in the mid-1950s seemed to be crazy for all things Western. The television series Gunsmoke featuring Sheriff Matt Dillon made its debut in 1955 and would go on to run for two decades. If you liked your cowboys singing, the fifth most successful movie at the box office that year was Oklahoma! And the Cowboy Party Game let kids try their aim at placing a pistol in the hand of a smiling cowpoke in a blazing red vest.

I hope that maybe I’ve given you inspiration to break out of that donkey rut in your party games. Maybe you even want to create a pin-the-tail game of your own that suits your own interests. Why not grab your markers and design a totally fresh variation? And, when you do, snap a picture or two so you can share your creation with The Strong’s Play Stories project, dedicated to gathering, preserving, and sharing stories, images, and videos about play in 2020. Because when a game’s a classic, it always deserves a fresh spin for our own time.

Telling Tales and Sharing Play Stories

When I went to college, I couldn’t decide on a major. I didn’t switch my course of study the way lots of college students do—I just smooshed it all into a double major. One major was in English because I loved writing and reading stories. The other major was in history because, well, I loved stories about the past. Now that I’m a museum curator, a lot of what I do involves storytelling. Every day, as I study the museum’s objects, I’m continually working out the stories that they have to tell.

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Bringing Video Game Style to Your Home

When I walk my dog, I also peek through neighbors’ windows and wrinkle my nose at textiles, wall paper designs, and furniture. When I attend parties, I pretend to engage in conversation while I discreetly determine how to rearrange the hosts’ furniture. I know that’s not polite, but I’m being honest here. I also know that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and decorating budgets are often slim. But adding a touch of style to your gamer pad is sure to win over your guests.

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Fore-Edge Paintings: Hidden Treasures

How many times have you been told that “you can’t judge a book by its cover”? As a librarian, I fully endorse this sentiment. I would, however, like to create a related maxim: you can’t judge a closed book by its fore-edge. What’s a fore-edge, you ask? In book-speak, that’s the name for the edge opposite the spine. Hidden beneath the gilt or marbled covering on some books’ fore-edges, you just may discover a most exquisite watercolor.

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The Buzz Surrounding Mobile Gaming Apps


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Mermaid Memories: A Fairy "Tail"

“Hey, Mom, quick! Look at me swimming with my legs and feet together! Who am I?”

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Learning Through Video Games

I bet most gamers don’t expect to have an educational experience while playing, unless they pick up Math Blasters or Carmen Sandiego. After all, the word “game” often implies something done for fun and relaxation. But learning in game play is not restricted to Edutainment video games marketed at young children and their parents.

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Quidditch for Muggles

How does a fictional game become real on college campuses?

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Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?

Sunny day Sweepin' the clouds away On my way to where the air is sweet

Can you tell me how to get How to get to Sesame Street?

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Will Wright’s Video Game Notebooks

When Will Wright donated some of his design notebooks to ICHEG, I couldn’t wait to get a glimpse into his creative process. Examining this acquisition made me more aware of how fundamentally different his games are from those of many other designers.

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The Lure of the Circus

When I was a kid, I used to dream about running away to join the circus to be a clown.  I loved the idea of being a clown—especially when my mother had come up with some particularly irksome chore. I found myself longing for the mystery and the majesty, the fun and the freedom of life under the big top. And still, every once in a while, for reasons that are not clear to me, I think about the circus.

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