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.

Must-Have Holiday Toys—Past, Present, and Future

Is there someone on your holiday gift-buying list who deserves a memorable toy this season? I’m here to tell you to look no further than the must-have toys of yesteryear to come up with a gift that’s sure to delight—a strategy that will spare you from duking it out in the toy aisle over the latest hot plaything that’s selling at a premium. Just let the toy crazes of the past be your guide to avoiding holiday shopping stress this year. 

Etch A Sketch, 1960Let’s start by setting your Wayback Machine for December 1960 and sending yourself to the small town of Bryan, Ohio. With a snow flurry sifting down, you’ll find yourself on the street in front of the red brick headquarters and factory of the Ohio Art Company. Only a few months before, the executives of Ohio Art were sweating bullets because they had committed the astronomical sum of $25,000—more than they’d ever spent before—to license the rights to what they considered a promising new toy. The self-contained drawing toy used the principle of static cling (just like an acrylic sweater in your dryer) to adhere gray dust to the back of a clear screen. Turning the two knobs on the front of the toy allowed users to draw an endless line and test their creativity and dexterity. Of course, that toy with its rectangular red frame and two little white knobs at the lower corners was the Etch A Sketch. With the help of a little television advertising, Etch A Sketch was the must-have toy that December and the Ohio Art production line operated a full tilt right into Christmas Eve to keep up with the tsunami of orders that had swamped the company. Even in our digital age, Etch A Sketch remains an enduring classic—challenging to master but reassuring that you can always shake it up and start over.

Cabbage Patch Kids doll, 1983 Move ahead a few years to December 1983, when a cute-homely doll was taking the toy world by storm. A few years earlier, a Georgia artist named Xavier Roberts had created a line of fabric sculptures he called Little People. An extra twist was that customers didn’t simply buy Little People, they “adopted” them from what he called Babyland General Hospital. The dolls retailed for what, at the time, was the elevated price of $30 or $40 each (you paid more for a baby with hair), but Roberts and his staff could barely keep up with demand. Eventually, he licensed the concept to Coleco Industries to manufacture the dolls with vinyl heads and cloth bodies. Coleco still kept the adoption certificates and produced the dolls with a range of details such as hair and eye color. Renamed Cabbage Patch Kids when they reached the market in the summer of 1983, the dolls caught the public’s fancy. They didn’t look like a standard baby doll and, suddenly, it seemed like everyone wanted their own. Following a Newsweek magazine cover story on the Cabbage Patch craze, Coleco couldn’t keep up with the demand. As the holiday season progressed, adults became more and more desperate to find dolls for their kids. Retail stores everywhere reported disturbances s frenzied customers battled for the few available dolls. Today, rest assured that Cabbage Patch Kids still have their idiosyncratic look and winsome personality, but you won’t need to put on your gladiator garb to nab one for that lucky child on your list.

Tickle Me Elmo, 1996 Now think about December 1996. This toy started when inventor Ron Dubren, sat at the park and watched a bunch of kids tickling each other. Dubren joined forces with Greg Hyman, a fellow toy inventor, to create an electronic toy that laughed and squirmed when its tummy was tickled. They first made a stuffed monkey with an electronic chip in its stomach that was designed to make the primate giggle. They pitched Tickles the Monkey to Tyco Toys, which had a license to produce toys based on Looney Tunes characters. Tyco suggested that they turn the concept into a Tasmanian Devil toy called Tickle Me Taz. Time passed, however, and Tyco’s Looney Tunes license lapsed. In the meantime, the company acquired the rights to produce toys using Sesame Street characters. Tyco saw Elmo, the fluffy, red, three-year-old, as a perfect match for the Tickles toy. The character and the technology proved to be a match made in heaven. Tickle Me Elmo became the must-have toy of the 1996 holiday season. As Christmas drew near, retailers knew that they could never meet the consumer demand. To fend-off theft and arguments, Toys “R” Us phoned raincheck holders and left a vague message that the “item” was ready for pick-up. When the customer arrived, the clerk would hand a pre-wrapped package to him, so that he or she could slip out of the store with Elmo, undetected by other shoppers. Tyco inadvertently launched a media promotion when Rosie O’Donnell promoted the toy on her daytime talk show to a massive national audience. The Today show aired a segment about new hot toys and Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric got an on-air kick out of Tickle Me Elmo. Some entrepreneurs went so far as to run newspaper advertisements offering to part with a Tickle Me Elmo for $1,000 or best offer. Today you’ll find that Tickle Me Elmo retails for much less lofty prices, even though he’s had his electronics advanced. For anyone—young or old—who could use a little more laughter in their life, Tickle Me Elmo might be just the ticket this season.

So there you have it—three holiday toy classics that retain their appeal for kids today and are sure to bring a nostalgic smile to grown-ups too. While there’s nothing wrong with the latest 2018-vintage toys, opting for one of these toys that has stood the test of time can mean that you’ll be relaxing in front of the fire in your comfy slippers when other shoppers are questing online or in person for something that’s trending this year. And what’s not to like about a little less holiday stress this December? Enjoy!

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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What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.

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Teetotums

“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.

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Rack ‘Em Up

I grew up in a small town with a population of roughly 5,000. It may not look it now, but it was once booming with activity and businesses. A basket factory and a canning factory ranked among the major employers. Then the train quit making stops in town. Without convenient access to supplies, factories slowly closed and the population dwindled. But what became of the train station and the hotel attached to it? That is a key part of my childhood.

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Preserving Carol Shaw’s Trailblazing Video Game Career

Carol Shaw, the first widely recognized female game designer and programmer, has donated to The Strong a collection of console games, printed source code, design documents, sketches, reference materials, and promotional objects representing games she created for Atari, Inc.

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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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