I usually write blogs because I’m interested in a subject. Perhaps it’s a new collection that came into The Strong museum, such as when we preserved the Skylanders collection or a new group of materials arrived from the estate of Ralph Baer. Or sometimes it’s a subject that piques my interest because it’s in the news but I also think that there’s a larger historical context that is being missed—that’s why I wrote about how violence is an inherent part of football’s long-standing appeal. Or sometimes I just write about something I find personally interesting (as well as hopefully important), like the influence of Dungeons and Dragons on video game design.
And yet we all have biases, preferences, and tendencies to tilt one way more than others in our interpretive inquiries. I suspect I let my own favorite playthings and pastimes overdetermine, to use an academic piece of jargon, what I write about. So I decided to let chance determine my next blog—what would happen if I selected a randomly generated number from our collection, thus leaving it up to fortune or fate to decide? (And I conveniently wrote about the play of fortune in a recent blog…)
Keeping track of things is the first responsibility of any respectable museum and it’s also a huge challenge, so we have a system at The Strong that assigns an object identification number to every artifact in our collection. In reality, this unique marker is actually composed of two numbers separated by a decimal point.
To the left of the decimal point in this numbering system is a two-digit date marker representing the year the object was cataloged. After Margaret Strong died in 1969 and the decision was made to build a museum featuring her collection, the first task was to begin cataloging those items as well as new artifacts the museum was acquiring. The first object to be cataloged was done in 1973 and was a 19th-century painting of a young girl with her doll—its object number is 73.2. The number to the left of the decimal point (“73”) refers to the year the object was cataloged: 1973. The number to the right (“2”) is sequential, meaning the first object cataloged that year was 73.1, the second 73.2, etc. There isn’t any actual 73.1 in our database, so that was likely a placeholder record created to test the system—therefore 73.2 was the first “real” object cataloged.
(As an aside, one benefit of writing these blogs is that you learn new things in the process of composition, and in this case I discovered more about the history of this particular painting: object 73.2. It was done by Joseph Whiting Stock, an itinerant 19th-century New England folk painter who was crippled and left paralyzed from the waist down by an accident at age 11. He subsequently used a wheelchair, a tremendous challenge at a time of unpaved roads and rutted sidewalks. He painted this portrait of Mary Childs of Springfield, Massachusetts in 1846 and charged $18.00 for it, a more expensive sum than his usual fee. The doll shown in the painting is very similar to other dolls in paintings of his, so it may well be a stock piece of set dressing, not Mary’s actual doll.)
By picking two arbitrary numbers, one for the year the object was cataloged and one for the sequential number, I would produce a random artifact that might well be new to me and would be unaffected by own personal interests and biases. I created arrays for the year (between 1973 and 2021) and the sequential order (between 1 and 20,000), and then I used a random number generator to select numbers for both values. The result? Artifact number: 106.387. I was intrigued. It sounded a little like “Prisoner 24601” in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. What would it be?
It turned out that artifact number 106.387 is among the most commonplace and therefore among the most overlooked of playthings: a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy. Furthermore, it was linked with perhaps the most iconic American toy of all time: Barbie. In this case it was a Barbie from the mid-1990s who had—somewhat inexplicably—sprouted butterfly wings.
Now my knowledge of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys does not extend much beyond knowing that they’re popular and that my own kids enjoyed getting them when we’d stop for fast food on road trips. But one of the benefits—and responsibilities—of working at The Strong is that we can move beyond personal, surface-level knowledge to understand better the history of play. Our research library has a rich collection related to the history of toys, and in that were several books devoted to Happy Meal toys.
McDonald’s first began testing the Happy Meal in 1977, and soon the company hit on the formula of including a prize—usually a toy—in every box. Kids loved the novelty and the prize, even if it was cheaply made and disposable. That didn’t matter—it provided a fun plaything that added pleasure to the meal. McDonald’s soon developed their own toys, but they often began working with major toy manufacturers. (An early partnership with Playmobil, for example, had to be suspended because some of the premiums represented choking hazards.) Mattel was the biggest toy company in the world, and so the two corporations soon began collaborating, with the result that McDonald’s was soon releasing more branded toys like this Happy Meal Barbie. The fact that it was a Barbie was probably not coincidental, because not only was Barbie popular but this was a time when McDonald’s, like a lot of toy retailers and manufacturers, strongly gender typed their toys. Rather than getting a generic Happy Meal toy, consumers got one marketed to boys or one marketed to girls.
So what does this randomly generated artifact tell us? In some ways it’s a good reminder that much of our play is ordinary and ephemeral. A child’s plaything thousands of years ago might have been a stick—it was fun, free, and disposable. In many ways this Happy Meal Barbie was similar. It provided opportunities for whimsy and wonder (why not add wings to Barbie?). It was cheap. Happy Meals are ways parents of almost any income level can treat their kids; these are not toys for the well-heeled. And it was ultimately disposable. For better or for worse, plastic is ubiquitous in our lives because it’s inexpensive and can be shaped in an infinite variety of sturdy forms. We use it, then throw it away, where it ends hopefully in a landfill and not the ocean.
Play is transitory, fleeting, of the moment, and the destiny of most playthings is to be used, loved, and then eventually discarded. This Barbie somehow escaped that fate, to find its way into the collections of The Strong where it has sat on a shelf waiting to be rediscovered.
Nice to meet you, artifact 106.387.
Article by Jon-Paul Dyson, Vice President of Exhibits and Director of ICHEG, Exhibits Research & Development at The Strong National Museum of Play.