When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with the television program E! True Hollywood Story. Each week, I took a salacious rollercoaster ride through the ups and downs of a celebrity’s life. Right before each commercial break, the narrator assured me that either the star was about to be saved from his downward spiral or that her glory days were going to come to a screeching halt. I loved the drama and the “truth is stranger than fiction” element of the program. To this day, among my favorite authors are masters of journalistic nonfiction like Erik Larson, Jon Krakauer, and Sebastian Junger.
Each year, The Strong inducts a new class into the National Toy Hall of Fame, and the world has an opportunity to learn the “true story” of each iconic and innovative toy. Toys are not created or played with in a vacuum: they are inexorably connected to the lives and times of their inventors and are equally as connected to the lives of the children who play with them, and the times in which those children live. The stories behind toys are full of intrigue, humor, and humanity. Here are my top ten toy stories to read—with a bonus selection for one of the 2016 Toy Hall of Fame inductees!
Barbie, Class of 1998
Role model or tool of oppression? Love her or hate her, Barbie will forever be a part of American girlhood. Robin Gerber’s 2009 Barbie and Ruth: The Story of the World’s Most Famous Doll and the Woman who Created Her traces Ruth Handler’s journey from the tenth child of Polish Jewish immigrants to co-founder of Mattel, inventor of Barbie, cancer survivor, and beyond. Tanya Lee Stone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Barbie: A Doll’s History and Her Impact on Us delves into the sociological side of Barbie’s story (a topic that seems as timeless as Barbie herself).
Once upon a time, our great nation was at war. Americans were asked to make many sacrifices to help the war effort—to spend less and waste less—and to not buy any presents for their children for Christmas. Then, a hero descended upon Washington, DC, and with common sense talk and a bag full of toys, convinced the government to let the children have their Christmas after all. If that doesn’t make you want to read The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, the Man who Saved Christmas by Bruce Watson, I don’t know what will!
Frisbee, Class of 1998
What do a pie pan, a cookie tin cover, and a woven basket lid have in common? They all could be precursors to the flying disk or the Frisbee, as it is commonly known today. The original World Frisbee Champion Victor A. Malafronte takes readers on a light-hearted spin through the origins of the game and its flight into Ultimate Frisbee, disc golf, and other competitive sports in The Complete Book of Frisbee: The History of the Sport and the First Official Price Guide.
During the Great Depression, a down-on-his-luck salesman created a board game at his humble kitchen table that took the world by storm and made him a millionaire. Nice story. But the rags-to-riches tale of Charles Darrow and Monopoly is not quite that simple. In Monopoly: The World’s Most Famous Game and How It Got that Way, former Parker Brothers executive and Monopoly expert Philip E. Orbanes traces the game’s origins from the brainchild of a Quaker activist to the celebration of capitalism we know it as today. If you want a monopoly on Monopoly’s history, consult the Philip E. Orbanes Papers and the LeRoy Howard Papers at the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play and Mary Pilon’s 2015 book The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal behind the World’s Favorite Board Game.
Bicycle, Class of 2000
What has two wheels and was once considered the single greatest threat to an oppressive patriarchal society? The bicycle! Margaret Guroff traces the bicycle’s role in America’s social history, from the suffrage and early women’s rights movement to road paving to mountain biking and bike shares in The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life. And, please, share the road!
Jigsaw Puzzle, Class of 2002
What do Bill Gates, Stephen King, and Queen Elizabeth II have in common? They are all avid jigsaw puzzle players! What began as an educational tool to teach geography transformed into a popular activity during the Great Depression. Renowned puzzle expert Anne D. Williams puts the story together in The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History.
Scrabble, Class of 2004
Stefan Fatsis has ventured deep within a competitive and brilliant subculture that most of us didn’t realize existed—and he lived to tell about it! In Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive SCRABBLE Players, Fatsis interweaves the history of Scrabble with the personal account of his quest to hold his own against the best Scrabble players in the country. The world of Scrabble has also been explored in Letterati: An Unauthorized Look at Scrabble and the People that Play It by Paul McCarthy and Word Nerd: Dispatches from the Games, Grammar, and Geek Underground by John D. Williams, Jr., former executive director of the National Scrabble Association.
Easy-Bake Oven, Class of 2006
Mix equal parts of innovation, economics, consumerism, and marketing into a bowl and pour into a tiny pan. Place pan under a light bulb and wait for 50 years or so. Or you can read Light Bulb Baking: A History of the Easy-Bake Oven by Todd Coopee for the story behind the Easy-Bake Oven. If you still can’t get enough of that “ding!”, you can try your hand at the 1998 Baker of the Year recipe for Toffee Trifle Cake or Bobby Flay’s Queso Fundido with Roasted-Poblano Vinaigrette as found in The Easy-Bake Oven Gourmet by David Hoffman.
Skateboarding is not a crime! But not reading Stalefish: Skateboard Culture from the Rejects that Made It by Sean Mortimer should be. Mortimer interviews skateboarding pioneers and legends—from Jim Fitzpatrick to Tony Hawk—about what drew them to the sport and what it was like for them to experience the evolution of skateboarding.
Rubik’s Cube, Class of 2014
Monopoly is not the only game in town when it comes to legal intrigue. The Cube: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Bestselling Puzzle—Secrets, Stories, Solutions by Jerry Slocum reveals the story behind the Rubik’s Cube and the “Cube Suit” case that dragged out over five years in the 1980s. The Arthur S. Obermayer Cube Suit Collection documents Moleculon’s case against Ideal Toy Company. Slocum’s book goes beyond legal matters to include photographs of puzzles, merchandise, and the cultural phenomenon inspired by the Rubik’s Cube.
This year, The Strong welcomed Dungeons & Dragons into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Developed in the 1970s, D&D plunged participants into imaginary worlds of magic and monsters. It required players to role-play without a board or other defined game space, asking them to rely on their imaginations. Journalist David M. Ewalt delves into the history of the game and its profound influence on our culture in Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People who Play It. Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons explores the life of the game’s inventor. If you want extra “hit points,” check out the Play Generated Map and Document Archive (PlaGMaDA) Papers.
Now that your “to read” list has grown, it’s time to get started reading. And next year, there will be more toy stories to tell!
For more on toys, games, and all sorts of other stuff for play—past and present—from Beth and her museum colleagues, visit The Strong's Play Stuff Blog.