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.

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

A photo of the label of Box 1 of 171 of the Brian Sutton-Smith papers at the archives at The Strong.

 
 

Despite growing up in Rochester and routinely passing The Strong museum en route to the family business on Oregon Street, I failed to take advantage of the museum’s wonderful exhibits and its abundant collections until late June of 2018. Then, over the course of five days leading up to the July 4th holiday, I was fortunate enough to take a break from my doctoral studies at the University of Texas at Austin to work through sections of the museum’s Brian Sutton-Smith Collection.

 

Hailing from New Zealand, Dr. Sutton-Smith spent a 37-year career in academia focused on the sociological and anthropological development of games in both children and adults. Among his final stops in a storied career was as a resident scholar at The Strong National Museum of Play, where the collection of his life’s work would be housed. While my dissertation research (the intersection of sport and global imperialism) does not mirror the focus of his life’s work, the research fellowship afforded me the opportunity to explore a tangential interest of mine.

Draft diagram and description of the game Foursquare, The Strong, Rochester, NY

 

The research question which drove me to The Strong was “when do games turn into sport?” I had been stuck attempting to answer this question philosophically, and it was not until my hours-long engagements with the esteemed professor’s collection that I realized the question was better approached sociologically. The collection—comprised of his own drafts (over 300 articles and books), research notes, community outreach, and correspondence—runs 171 boxes deep. After scratching the surface of the deep and fruitful collection—19 boxes and roughly 8,000 pages—I had discovered several novel approaches to answering my initial question. Sutton-Smith, through his work, guided me to more nuanced models focused on gendered approaches to conceptualizations of sport. Therefore, the point at which games turn into sports could be significantly influenced by the relationship between games and young girls versus young boys. Furthermore, the professor’s collection included a prodigious amount of material on board games and, much to my surprise and delight, jokes. How children and adults are socialized through what might be broadly termed as “mind-sport” is something I have incorporated into my research since my visit.

Handwritten notes on play, The Strong, Rohcester, NY

 

My week with the professor proved both enlightening and productive. Sutton-Smith’s collection provides the theoretical backdrop for a paper currently under construction focused on debunking the myth of the “weakest link” in youth team sports. To those who embrace visits to The Strong for the museum’s incredible collection of play memorabilia and interactive exhibits, I strongly encourage a moment with the papers of one of the most esteemed professors of play. A collection filled with powerful research, personal anecdotes, and a touch of well-placed humor—one would be well served to take a step off the typical museum path and spend some time with Brian Sutton-Smith.

The A-Team: On the Jazz in the ‘80s

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team.

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A Flick of the Wrist: Flying Discs and Frisbees

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Making Things and Making Things Last

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The Paper Airplane Soars into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Historians debate the origins of paper airplanes. Early attempts at constructing flying machines fascinated children and adults alike. The success of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 fostered renewed hope of powered flight and no doubt contributed to the purported invention, in 1909, of the paper airplane.

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Quite a Character

“Victoria? I have to tell you something… And you’re definitely going to roll your eyes.”

I stare at my stepson and brace myself for whatever words are about to follow. We are sitting around the table at my in-laws home eating spaghetti and he’s looking a bit worn out from the NHL hockey game he attended earlier that day in Montreal. I set my fork down in anticipation.

“Hit it,” I prompt.

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Wiffle Ball Joins the National Toy Hall of Fame Line-up

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Scooby Doo as Colonel Mustard in the Graveyard: Licensed Clue Games

​Today people find themselves bombarded with ideas, images, and characters from every kind of media.

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Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

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Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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