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!

Dungeons & Dragons: Innovative Role-playing Game Merits Hall of Fame Induction

In the 1970s, a group of gaming friends added the concept of role-playing to the previously straightforward play of war games. Gamers Gary Gygax and his associate Jeff Perrin published instructions for Chainmail, a medieval war game, in 1971. This game differed from all other published war games by including a fantasy supplement based in part on the increased cultural interest in the works of fantasy authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard, author of the Conan series.

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The History of Play-Doh: Good, Clean Fun!

Chances are if you mention Play-Doh, your listener will know exactly to what you mean.

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A History of Film-to-Game Adaptations: Why I Play, Study, and (Sometimes) Like Bad Games

In October 2015, I was awarded a Research Fellowship from The Strong. I had access to the library, the archives, the museum itself, and the seemingly endless rows of shelves full of playthings of the past. Both my 14-year-old self and my current 30-something researcher self were in a happy place. My job is to study video games and teach about them—not a bad gig at all, I must admit—and I have been interested in the history and theory of digital and non-digital play for some time.

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MECC, The Company that Launched Educational Gaming

It is impossible to tell the story of educational computing without acknowledging the tremendous importance of Minnesota Educational Computing Corporation (MECC), the first organization to provide widespread access to games and other computer software for educational purposes.

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Barbie Hacks and Mods: On Swapping Voices, Removing Makeup, and Fighting Prejudice

Barbie has raised eyebrows since her debut at the 1959 Toy Fair. Modeled after the German Bild Lilli novelty doll, Barbie provided girls a playroom outlet for their dreams and aspirations. Inventor Ruth Handler knew that girls wanted to play at more than being a mother to life-sized baby dolls, but Mattel executives were skeptical.

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PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH … And Why Some People Do, Anyway

If you are a human with a job and colleagues, your coworkers probably send you links to various items on the Internet. These may include the occasional funny cat video, but most of the time the content probably has a legitimate connection to your job. In my case, people send me numerous articles about preservation and, thankfully, most of it is good news.

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“He Shoots! He Scores!”: Hockey Games for the Off-Season

Being a fan of a professional sports team can be a lot of work. Sure, you can casually flip through the television channels on a Sunday afternoon and watch a few minutes of football, or you can accept some free tickets to a baseball game just to appreciate the sunshine and some stadium hot dogs, but folks who call themselves “die-hard fans” really take their enjoyment of sports to a different level.

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Playing Pirate

It’s 9:43 a.m. on September 19, and you’re eyeing the morning’s deadlines when the usually reserved graphic artist pokes her head into your office and says, “Ye’ll have me that copy before the sun is over the yard-arm, or I’ll have ye walkin’ the plank, ye swab, ye scurvy son of a sea dog.” With a flourish, she whips an X-Acto  knife in her teeth. You notice that she’s wearing a tri-cornered felt hat with the Jolly Roger on the brim.

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An Ancient Game in a Digital Age

Recently for The Strong’s American Journal of Play, I reviewed Garry Fine’s new book on the sociology of chess, and I particularly enjoyed his discussion on the role of computers in chess.

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Playing Catch

Several years ago, friends came to visit and brought along their Australian shepherd/border collie mix and this black Ko

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