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.” 

Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

Since last summer, you may have noticed small groups of millennials walking briskly toward landmarks surrounded by people staring intently at their smartphone screens. Every now and then, cries of delight or disdain erupt from the gatherers. “Oh good, a Snorlax!” someone murmurs appreciatively. “Just another Rattata!” another person groans.

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Playing the "Good War"

The recent decision by the producers of Call of Duty:WWII to return the game’s setting to World War II—after a detour into modern warfare and futuristic science fiction—reflects not only the franchise’s success with this period but also the fact that no other war has so captured the imagination of playmakers and players.

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Nerf Ball

“Stop playing with that ball inside the house!

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Chris Kohler Fanzine Collection Documents Video Game Culture

In addition to collecting video and other electronic games and materials that document how these games are made and sold, the staff at The Strong's International Center for the History of Electronic Games (ICHEG) is also interested in preserving evidence of player culture.

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The Eyes Have It

When The Strong museum recently acquired a Shirley Temple doll from the 1930s, it went to the museum’s doll conservator Darl

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Would Girls Like It? Why Atari's Market Testing Failed to Produce a Female Audience

Video games have a common—and increasingly outdated—image of appealing primarily to males. This misperception is perhaps due to the tendency of the media to focus on the “triple A” market—high-budget games, produced by established game corporations, that highlight violence and sex to appeal to a straight, male audience. At least one company, however, was aware of the potential for a female market for video games in the 1980s.

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Attention Trekkies: Star Trek Tridimensional Chess!

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Good to Go: Playful Ways to Get Around

It seems that now, perhaps more than ever, people everywhere are constantly on the go. Traveling to work or school, the gym, or the grocery store—the list goes on and on. We eat on the run, drink coffee on the run, and even get our information on the run thanks to smartphones that make emails, news, and calls available wherever we are. Today, many folks would tell you that life on the go is hectic but necessary. For a moment, let’s set the necessary aside and look at the more playful side of “things that go!” as children so frequently phrase it.

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“All Aboard!” for Fun with Trains

Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W.

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Out of this World: A Brief History of the Yo-Yo

I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy.

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