Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong
At the turn of the 20th century, the toy market in the United States relied heavily on European imports—only 30 percent of the toys sold were produced domestically. Retailers and salesmen depended on buyers who traveled abroad for goods and news of industry trends. In 1902, a group of American toy companies sought to change the status quo, stationing themselves in a lower Manhattan hotel for the month of February to entice toy buyers with American-made products as they departed for Europe and arrived home again.
Since their inception in the early 20th century, comic books have been synonymous with American youth and playfulness. The colorful, action-packed stories in the pages of comics translated into creative play in the backyard with capes and masks and into elaborate worlds scaled to the action figures on the playroom rug. As comics and action figures evolved, lines became blurred: which came first, the comic or the toy?
My first library card was a small rectangle made of royal blue cardstock, with the handwritten number “9555” in the top right corner. This very valuable document allowed me to check out up to six items at a time from my town’s library. Ever the opportunist, I always checked out the first six books that I picked up, knowing that I could come back anytime (!) and swap them for a new batch. This method of binge-reading let me plow through entire runs of some of my favorite children’s (and young adult) series while in elementary school.
In October 2017, I had the chance to be at The Strong National Museum of Play as a research fellow collecting data for my Dolls in Focus project aimed at revisiting and expanding the findings of my previous linguistic investigation on dolls’ language. Surprisingly, what I thought would primarily be an exploratory incursion into dolls’ universe from an academic perspective turned out to be a rather touching and personal experience that allowed me to revisit my own childhood memories.
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).