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. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Transatlantic Play

Amy Drevenstedt, The Flight of Charles A. Lindbergh, 1928. David Rumsey Collection.

There are very few global “cartographic events” in human history—feats of transportation that require the immediate making and dispersal of new maps. Columbus’s arrival in the New World was one. The moon landing was another. To this short list we might add Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic crossing. In 1927, he became the first to fly alone from the continental United States to continental Europe (New York–Paris).

Lindbergh’s various flight exploits are often and understandably overshadowed by his future dabbling with fascism and the infamous kidnapping of one of his sons (the “Lindbergh baby”). At the time, however, his transatlantic feat stood as a milestone, with an immense impact on civilian flight. One estimate suggests that in the months after his venture, Americans purchased more than 8,000 airplanes for private use. And just as aeronautic exploits were transformed into spectacles and games in the balloon era, so they were in the so-called “leather helmet and goggles era” of open cockpit flying. Personally, I prefer to call it the “bearskin suit and cigarettes” era, both of which Lindbergh was known to use as he flew.

A hazard card from Lindy: The New Flying Game, Improved Edition, Parker Brothers, 1927. Lindbergh lingers, culturally. People still dance the eponymous Lindy Hop. But the steps to that dance are merely the historical aftershocks of what was once a Lindbergh mania, executed in song, cinema, and sport. The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine has a showcase of their collection of Lindbergh-inspired games. The design of such games is visually inventive, but it is one thing to see the games and quite another to play them. I came to The Strong, which has a wide array of flight games in its collection, in order to look inside the boxes, see what made them play, and get to the bottom of what they borrowed from Lindbergh’s flight—and indeed, from flight in general.

Some of these games featured Lindbergh in the title, such as Lindy: The New Flying Game; others had more oblique references—fly by night games that aimed to profit from the Lindbergh phenomenon indirectly, such as Captain Hop Across Jr. These games took much from Lindbergh’s flight: above all, they borrowed the map of the journey, which had been published widely in newspapers and magazines. Almost all the Lindbergh games in The Strong collection employed a board that doubled as a map. Of course, the crossover between map and board game is large, with Risk being the best-known contemporary example; but maps borrowed from games, as well. For instance, in Amy Drevenstedt’s commemorative map, The Flight of Charles A. Lindbergh, the border panels narrate, as though in a game sequence, the preparation, flight, landing, and homecoming of Lindbergh.

Aero Race, Bar-Zim, about 1930. Atop these play maps, the games introduced qualities of randomness; or, to borrow the French term that implies a greater sense of danger: hasard. The trials that Lindbergh faced were routinely translated into elements of chance on the board. In Aero Race, three weighted pieces representing Lindbergh, Clarence Chamberlin, and Richard E. Byrd (also early transatlantic aviators) race across the ocean from one monument to another, Statue of Liberty to Eiffel Tower. Their movement is erratic, difficult for the player to control, just as Lindbergh’s actual flight was turbulent, its orientation interfered with by magnetic storms. The player twitches, rather than glides, across the ocean.

We: The Magnetic Flying Game, Parker Brothers, 1928. Named for Lindbergh’s autobiography, We: The Magnetic Flying Game developed “an entirely new principle in Aviation Games”—the living room becomes the board. Players use magnets on strings to manipulate miniature airplanes from airfield (couch) to airfield (chair). Not unlike carnival fishing games of old, the magnets are not quite powerful enough to carry their load and sustain the flight of the airplanes. They regularly fall into the sea (carpet). Once again, the game mirrors the hazards of flight, and turns aerial derring-do into transatlantic play.

Communication and transportation are, as media historians often remind us, closely related. Newspapers and railways, for instance, expanded together in the 19th century, newspaper companies paying for railway track to help extend their distribution: the speed of one dependent upon the speed of the other. In the case of games and flight, there was an analogous situation, albeit in miniature. Lindbergh’s achievement challenged an entire series of games to incorporate his dizzying, difficult mechanics. Games, too, danced the Lindy Hop.

Oh Brother! Oh Sister!

Mothers get their day in May. Fathers are feted in June. And what about sisters and brothers? Their turn comes on April 10—Siblings Day. Siblings Day hasn’t earned recognition as a federal holiday (yet), but since 1998, governors have proclaimed Siblings Day in 49 states. From experience and observation, I know that sibling relationships can take any number of different configurations. And that made me think about the famous siblings that come readily to mind from the world of toys, dolls, and games.

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Postwar Plastic Playthings: Affordability, Resources and Military Surplus

I first became interested in the increase of plastic in children’s toys through my own daughter’s toys, especially since my undergrad degree was in Environment and Health, with a fourth year focus on Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) in baby bottles. Throughout my Masters studies, I focused on the central question of why we keep what we do, how we make those decisions, and the ways in which we’ve come to value or devalue certain things.

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Playing with Puppies

We have all heard the saying that a dog is man’s (and woman’s too) best friend. We love dogs so much that they even have their own special day—National Puppy Day! Canine companionship has been around for eons and extends from pets to working dogs. Whether they are snuggle buddies, sled pullers, or law enforcement assistants, dogs play a significant role in our society and in our hearts. So it should be no surprise that their popularity also carries over into children’s literature and playthings.

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Play for All Seasons

I receive a lot of strange looks whenever I tell people that I look forward to the end of summer. Perhaps your face has morphed into such an expression after reading that. But there is logic behind my claim.

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Rolling Out the First Driving Game

I’ve admired The Strong’s vintage

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"True Hollywood” Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love

When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with the television program E! True Hollywood Story. Each week, I took a salacious rollercoaster ride through the ups and downs of a celebrity’s life. Right before each commercial break, the narrator assured me that either the star was about to be saved from his downward spiral or that her glory days were going to come to a screeching halt. I loved the drama and the “truth is stranger than fiction” element of the program.

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The Strong Launches Women in Games Initiative

For many decades, women have played key roles in the design, production, manufacture, marketing, and writing of video games, and yet their history in the gaming industry is too little preserved and too often underappreciated.

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“Down at Fraggle Rock!”

While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I worked as a DJ for the college radio station.

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Fun at the Drive-In

My favorite artifact in America at Play, an exhibit that opened on The Strong’s second floor in December 201

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But We Play It Like This: House Rules for Games

Here’s a fun experiment: suggest playing a game of Monopoly and predict the responses you’ll receive. More often than not, you’ll be hit with an audible groan and the familiar refrain of “Has anyone ever actually finished a game of Monopoly?” Admittedly, I used to be anti-Monopoly myself.

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