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.
Play Stuff Blog
Following World War II, William Levitt applied techniques of mass production to construction and built neighborhood developments on Long Island. Wartime shortages had crippled the housing industry, but Levitt knew that veterans would be eager to establish a normal life. When the Levitt homes hit the market in 1949, more than 1,400 sold on the first day. Over the years, post-World War II suburbia propelled a new type of domestic design and many Americans exceeded the standard of living appreciated by previous generations. Economists, sociologists, historians, and artists, among others, often deem suburbia as an uncontrolled sprawl that imposed conformity and served as a tool for segregation. Others get nostalgic about the suburban neighborhoods that shaped their childhoods. Director Tim Burton once told a reporter that “it’s not a bad place … it’s a place where there’s a lot of integrity.” As I prepared a display of train accessories to highlight at The Strong, I found this discussion especially pertinent to Plasticville, a brand of plastic toy train accessories by Bachmann Bros.
Bachmann Bros. originally manufactured celluloid hair combs and optical frames. In 1946, the company marketed injection molded fencing intended to serve as a “Christmas fence” for Yuletide displays. Rather than use the fencing for their Christmas gardens, consumers tended to incorporate it in their model train layouts. Bachmann caught onto the trend and began to add other accessories such as trees, bushes, and bridges. By 1950, Bachmann added houses and municipal buildings to the line and named it Plasticville U.S.A. With prices ranging from 39 to 99 cents (much lower than wood and lithographed toy buildings), children could afford to purchase a set from the hobby store or other local retailer. The sets also featured snap-together construction and required no glue to assemble. Plasticville quickly became a playtime staple.
Children growing up in the 1950s also often wanted to replicate the neighborhoods in which they lived through play. Unlike other manufacturers that often stuck to traditional platforms, stations, newsstands, and switch towers, Bachmann designers created kits that provided insights into everyday life. Plasticville provided “a city in a box” and included hardware stores, highway motels, supermarkets, trailer homes, airports, greenhouses, firehouses, schools, police stations, and ranch houses in pretty pastels and picturesque boxes. With a few dollars and a little imagination, a child could create a miniature ‘ville that resembled the one just outside of his window.
Plasticville captured the spirit of early post-war America. People were excited about the potential of new innovations such as the more than 500 plastics that hit the market following the war. The possibility of affordable tract housing with nearby amenities also encouraged feelings of optimism. Plasticville continues to represent the suburban tranquility dreamt up more than 60 years ago.
In our new book from the World Video Game Hall of Fame, A History of Video Games in 64 Objects, we faced a challenge. Which objects should we include? The Strong museum, home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, has hundreds of thousands of objects related to video games in its collections, and so we needed to include just the right mix of artifacts that were important, helped tell the broader history of video games, and would engage readers.
If you’re one of the more than half-million visitors to The Strong museum each year, you may have spotted the gallery wall about the life of founder Margaret Woodbury Strong en route to the admissions desk (and later, when you mosey back over to the food court). The museum in its current state grew out of the original collections of dolls, dollhouses, and other playthings amassed and cherished by Margaret Woodbury Strong during her lifetime.
Get out your library cards and alert your book club! As far as we’re concerned, National Toy Hall of Fame season never ends, making it a fine time for another edition of Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love. Last year, I recommended books about 11 Toy Hall of Fame inductees and their inventors.
In this age of sharing every idle thought online, younger generations might find it hard to believe that publicly documenting one’s own life wasn’t always the norm. The most ancient forms of memory were kept in the oral tradition, and the keepers of records were individuals entrusted with the task of memorizing details and transmitting them through recitation to others. As writing systems developed and literacy rose across the globe, the written record became the rule (and oftentimes, entire groups of people were left off the pages).
“I love songs!”
This short phrase is something I’ve been known to say (or occasionally shout) with great enthusiasm. Yes, I could simply say I love music, but that wouldn’t encompass all of those catchy little improvised (and largely a cappella) ditties made up with friends or family while driving, working, cooking, or whenever else inspiration may strike. The word “songs” seems more fitting given the broader creative terrain it covers. Not to mention, most people chuckle or at least crack a smile when I utter those three words.