On Christmas, Browse A Historical Archive of More Than 50,000 Toys

paratroops in action

The Strong Nation­al Muse­um of Play, locat­ed in Rochester, NY, is a fun children’s muse­um. But the insti­tu­tion also has seri­ous research archives, stuffed with toys, games, and records of the toy indus­try. Its online col­lec­tions, which cur­rent­ly boast 55,068 objects, take a hol­i­day brows­er on a trip into a fig­u­ra­tive grandma’s attic, chock-full of the play­things peo­ple loved in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies.

The online archives are divid­ed into four cat­e­gories: “Toys”, “Dolls”, “Games”, and “More.” Each of these four sec­tions is fur­ther sub­di­vid­ed into top­i­cal­ly-spe­cif­ic groups, cho­sen by the archivists.

The collection’s strength is also its weak­ness: there are so many toys that it can be easy to get over­whelmed. The sub­ject divi­sions are help­ful here. As some­body with an inter­est in gen­der and child­hood, I found myself fas­ci­nat­ed by the house­keep­ing toyskids used to use ovens that were heat­ed with real coals!—and that was an easy way to nar­row down my browse.  Sub­ject group­ings for toy sol­diers, celebri­ty dolls, and board games also piqued my inter­est.

It’s fun to look around for toys from your own child­hood (I found a few), but if you’re inter­est­ed in his­to­ry, you might find the echoes of his­tor­i­cal events to be even more intrigu­ing. Late-nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry kids played with a paper doll inspired by the cir­cus celebri­ty Tom Thumb; chil­dren of the 1930s had licensed dolls of the media-sen­sa­tion Dionne Quin­tu­plets; a play­set from 1940 fea­tured grim, suit­ed-up “Para­troops in Action.”

Mou­s­ing over the thumb­nails will allow you to see the item’s name. If you see a blue “Learn More” tag, be sure to click through; that means that the item’s image will be accom­pa­nied by an inter­pre­tive his­tor­i­cal note writ­ten by the Strong’s archivists. These vary in length, and con­tain intrigu­ing tid­bits. Did you know, for exam­ple, that Hol­ly Hob­bie was a real per­son: the artist Hol­ly Ulinkas Hob­bie? Or that the famous artist Charles Dana Gib­son had a now-for­got­ten fol­low­er, Nell Brink­ley, who illus­trat­ed the flap­per era?

Rebec­ca Onion is a writer and aca­d­e­m­ic liv­ing in Philadel­phia. She runs Slate.com’s his­to­ry blog, The Vault. Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @rebeccaonion

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