Every year since 1998, The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY inducts beloved toys from our past into its Toy Hall of Fame. Like other Hall of Fame museums, making the list is the pinnacle of success. In 2022, that included the Top, Lite-Brite, and Masters of the Universe. While this year’s list is not yet out, a look at past inductees in this month’s issue is like a walk down Memory Lane.
The Strong Museum of Play is the legacy of Margaret Woodbury Strong, who grew up in Rochester, NY an only child in a wealthy family of collectors. Her father, John Charles Woodbury (1859–1937), collected coins and recorded life events in scrapbooks. Her mother, Alice Motley Woodbury (1859–1933), collected 19th-century Japanese objects d’art. And an admired aunt collected bookplates. As early investors in the Eastman Kodak Company, the Woodburys’ fortunes grew alongside those of George Eastman, and their wealth afforded Margaret many unique opportunities to indulge her passions, including building a collection of dolls from her travels around the world.
By the 1960s, Margaret’s collecting interests ranged so widely and her methods assumed such aggressive proportions that she had amassed more than 27,000 dolls and a seemingly endless number of middle-class American household objects spread over more than 50 categories. The vast majority of her collections, however, related in some way to play, and she earned a particular reputation for her outstanding collection of dolls and toys.
As her accumulation grew, Margaret began to think of her collections as a museum. To house her acquisitions, she added two gallery-like wings to her 30-room suburban Rochester residence. When people came to visit, she asked them to sign a guest book and record their impressions. In December 1957, the Rochester Times-Union reported on her dollhouses and noted, “These are only a few of the highlights of this stupendous collection which will soon be open to the children of Rochester and the general public.” A year later, the Rochester Historical Society sponsored the first public showing of the dollhouses, with 100 on view. Two months later, Hobbies—The Magazine for Collectors, publicized the event nationally.
In her will, Margaret left her collections and most of her financial resources for a museum, and 13 years later, in 1982, the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, known as The Strong, opened to the public. Today, it spans more than 285,000 square feet and houses, among other things, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the World Video Game Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, the Woodbury School, and the American Journal of Play.
Many of the toys, games, and dolls housed in The Strong and on the list of past inductees are 20th-century iterations of toys and board games that are millennia old.
One of the most ancient toys for adults and children is the ball, which was used in both sacred and secular games. The earliest known board games are estimated at 5,000 years old and were played by the Egyptians. Toys such as dolls, kites and yo-yos, and games such as Go, Chess, and Backgammon, also have ancient, global roots, as do games that use dice for chance.
The earliest known board game published in the U.S. is a simple map game, likely inspired by similar games from England. “The Travellers Tour Through the United States” is dated 1822. Dice were frowned upon for children’s games due to their association with gambling, so movement was instead determined by using a teetotum—a spinning top with numbers. The first commercial board game in the U.S. dates to 1843 and was produced by George Fox in England. It was called the “Mansion of Happiness” and was essentially a “race game” similar to Ludo (Parcheesi).
The success of George Fox’s “Mansion of Happiness” paved the way for hours of new family fun. The 1840s–1920s are known as “The Golden Age” of board gaming in America as the entrepreneurs behind such companies as McLoughlin Brothers, Parker Brothers, and Milton Bradley introduced children and families to worlds and skills beyond their everyday experiences in the new games board they were churning out.
Monopoly (created in 1903 and initially named “The Landlord’s Game”), arguably one of the most popular and successful board games in American history, was conceived by a woman named Lizzie Magie as an educational tool to illustrate the negative aspects of concentrating land in private monopolies; however, it was George Swinnerton Parker of Parker Bros. who, when offered “The Landlord’s Game,” turned the nature of the game into empowering players to beat, not be beaten down by, the system. He also changed the name of the game to “Monopoly.”
It is said Parker “hated ethics and morality in games” and believed that games should be played for enjoyment, not education. That was literally a game-changer for that time; it became OK for games to be played just for the fun of it. It is the memories of that enjoyment – playing games with family and friends just for the fun of it – that keep these toys alive and make them so much fun to collect.