Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

The Strong Acquires Monster Toys

Frankenstein’s Monster, 1974 Although The Strong’s toy collections have long included endearing dolls and adorable stuffed animals, recently the museum has added some creepier characters to its holdings. In an initiative inspired by the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Strong has acquired a Dracula figure made by Azrak-Hamway Incorporated, a Frankenstein’s Monster figure from Mego Corporation, and a Wolfman Assembly Kit produced by Aurora Plastic.

Wolfman Assembly Kit, Aurora, 1962 All three of these toys can ultimately trace their genesis to 1957 when Screen Gems bundled together pre-1948 classic horror films from Universal Studios and released the package for syndicated television. Marketed as “Shock Theater,” the films included Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Ray, Werewolf of London, and The Wolf Man, among others. The films usually aired on late night television, but many children snuck into their living rooms to catch the latest showing. The series launched a nationwide monster frenzy. The next year, Famous Monsters in Filmland magazine launched, filled with monster photos, movie magic, and silly puns. The films and magazine proved just the thing the nation wanted. Americans had recently witnessed the horrors of World War II and were now riddled with anxiety about the H-bomb and the Red Scare. People related to the themes of mind-control, paranoia, information-age anxiety, and security threats prevalent in the horror genre. Toy manufacturers soon caught on to the demand for monster related products.

In 1962, Aurora Plastics released a Frankenstein model kit. To proactively fend off parental anxieties, Aurora commissioned a psychological study focused on the effects of child’s play with monsters. The results—monster play was fine. Many psychologists during the period proclaimed that the manipulation of monsters allowed kids to exercise control over their fears. Aurora kept production going 24 hours a day to meet consumer demand. By Christmas that year, Aurora also produced Dracula and Wolfman kits.

Aurora continued to introduce new products including figures with “ghostly glow power,” kits for “The Pain Parlor” and “The Gruesome Goodies,” and female figures like Vampirella and Girl Victim. The Aurora marketing team created an eight-page brochure with Vampirella on the cover and copy that read, “Every family has its skeleton, but Aurora’s has more than most.” Some parents took issue with the sexy, suggestive, and flippant tone of the product.

Super Monsters: Dracula, AHI, 1974

In a July 1971, the New York Times published “Toys of the Seventies: Guillotines and Hypodermic Needles.” Reporter Grace Lichtenstein covered the physical and psychological harm done to kids by toys related to violence, including “The Pendulum,” a device used to cut a victim in half, by Aurora. In November of that year, protesters descended upon the headquarters of Nabisco, Aurora’s parent company, to disparage Aurora’s Monster Scenes as toys designed to depict violence toward women. Aurora struggled to address the litany of complaints about Monster Scenes and to calm Nabisco’s executives.

In reaction to the PR onslaught, Aurora changed the name of “The Victim,” the scantily clothed female figure that concerned parents and outraged women’s rights advocates, to “Dr. Deadly’s Daughter.” Next, Aurora eliminated “The Pendulum” from the series. And they then attempted to fight accusations that the female figures looked nude by molding the figures in red and pink. Nabisco was not convinced that the revised series would appease the public and the company’s director of publicity ordered Monster Scenes to be discontinued—at least for the time being.

Despite these criticisms, monsters and horror remained big business in the 1970s. Halloween, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, Dawn of the Dead, and Dracula vs. Frankenstein hit the big screen Azrak-Hamway Incorporated produced its line of Super Monsters. Mego released its Mad Monsters series. Penn-Plax marketed its Creature from the Black Lagoon figure. Mattel scored big with its two-foot tall Godzilla.

Scholars continue to debate whether the horror-genre is cathartic or gratuitous. These toys build upon characters and stories that have existed for hundreds of years and helps us to understand how horror in popular culture reflects our values, curiosities, anxieties, and play.

Which Came First—The Comic or the Toy?

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?

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Not Just Fan Fiction: The Allen Hammack D&D Collection

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.

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Documenting the Skylanders Story

It began with a phone call from Paul Reiche III last summer.

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Dolls in Focus

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.

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Sidewalk Surfing: The Gnarly History of Skateboarding Part II (1973 to 1991)

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Game Saves: Preserving the First LGBTQ Electronic Game

Floppy diskettes are an incredibly volatile medium. Available in multiple shapes, sizes, and formats, the magnetic disks were often used, rewritten, and eventually tossed aside as new methods of data storage arrived. Disks by their very nature are disposable, and younger generations may only recognize a floppy disk as a save icon. With some experts estimating the lifespan of a floppy disk at 10 to 20 years under the best conditions, many pieces of software, including games, are at risk.

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Sturdily Built: The Playful Longevity of the Cardboard Box.

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Examining 21st Century STEM–related Toys and their Impact on Girls

If someone asked you to name the types of toys girls played with, what would you say? Perhaps you would shout out “Barbies” or “baby dolls” or “pink cuddly toys,” right? Those types of toys have long been associated with girls, while trucks, cars, and blue toys made from hard plastic have been associated with boys. Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to understand why girls are not attracted to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) subjects.

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Little Boxes: Plasticville Plays at Post-World War II Suburbia

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An Expansion Pack for A History of Video Games in 64 Objects

In our new book from the World Video Game Hall of Fame, A History of Video Games in 64 Objects, we faced a challenge. Which objects should we include? The Strong museum, home of the World Video Game Hall of Fame, has hundreds of thousands of objects related to video games in its collections, and so we needed to include just the right mix of artifacts that were important, helped tell the broader history of video games, and would engage readers.

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