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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.

A Flick of the Wrist: Flying Discs and Frisbees

Wham-O Mfg. Co. trade catalog Have you ever had a day when you just want to throw something? Well, it’s probably optimal if you choose an object that is meant to be thrown. Playthings such as softballs, paper airplanes, water balloons, and Frisbees count among the items which get the go-ahead for a wind-up and release. As I mentioned in a previous blog about toys people throw, “Sometimes I like to throw for distance and speed, other times for accuracy. Trajectory, body mechanics, kinetic energy, and velocity are part of the formula. Those factors (combined with other variables) determine how far you can throw something, what direction it will take, and how fast it will go.” Although flying discs and Frisbees are objects that you more-or-less “flick and fling,” relying heavily upon wrist motion, I categorize them as “throw toys” and they rank among my favorite things to heave.

When and how did flying discs and Frisbees originate? Predecessors of the modern Frisbee were predominantly made of metal and can be traced back several centuries to the first Olympic Games in Greece in 708 BC when discus throwing was part of a pentathlon event. Later, in 2nd-century BC India, warriors used a disc with sharpened outer edges, called a chakram, as both a throwing weapon and a hand-to-hand combat tool. In the 14th century, a horseshoe-like game, quoits, appeared in England as early as 1388. Simply a ring tossed over a stick target, quoits remains still popular among sporting clubs in England and the U.S.

Pie pan Frisbie Pie Company The success of marketing flying metal playthings in the United States can be attributed to Fred and Lu Morrison. According to his book, Flat Flip Flies Straight!, Fred Morrison states that he and his then-girlfriend Lu first started tossing around a popcorn can lid over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1937. Within a year, they had graduated from throwing popcorn can lids to pie pans, and then from pie pans to cake pans! While flinging around a cake pan on a southern California beach in 1938, Fred and Lu were offered 25 cents for their 5 cent pan, resulting in an instant profit. That first unintentional sale served as the catalyst for a toy that would eventually become a household name—the Frisbee.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Fred and Lu continued to sell cake pans as flying objects and often demonstrated their gyroscopic and gliding techniques on various southern California beaches. After enlisting in the Air Force and serving as a World War II pilot, Morrison returned home to California, still interested in selling flying discs to consumers. Facing limitations on the use of metal as the result of World War II, Morrison investigated the idea of creating a flying disc made solely out of a relatively new type of material: plastic. By 1948, Morrison and his business partner, Warren Franscioni, formed the PIPCO company and manufactured the first flying discs made from plastic that they named the Flyin-Saucer.  

Flying disc A few years later, Morrison and Franscioni parted ways, but Morrison continued to produce his own version of a flying disc called a Pluto Platter. In January 1957, Morrison sold the rights for the Pluto Platter to Wham-O Mfg. Co.; by June of that year Wham-O co-founder Richard Knerr renamed and trademarked the saucers as “Frisbees.” Knerr thought it would be a good idea to use a name with which people were already familiar, since Yale University students had been tossing around empty Frisbie Pie Company pans on campus for years, and young people in the Northeast were already using the term “frisbie” to describe these flying discs. In 1964, Wham-O’s general manager and VP of Marketing, Ed Headrick, helped popularize the Frisbee by making slight design modifications and assisted in forming disc golf leagues that promoted Frisbee as a sport and not just a recreational leisure activity. In 1967, another flying disc game, Ultimate, caught on, and enthusiasts continue to play the two sports all over the world today.

 Wham-O Manufacturing Company trade catalog Although Frisbee is a registered trademark and brand name, most people refer to all solid, flat flying discs as “Frisbees.” (The term “Frisbee” has become genericized in much the same way that people refer to photocopiers as “Xerox machines” and facial tissues as “Kleenex.”) However, as the result of its longevity, popularity, and household name status, the Frisbee was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998.

On a nice, warm summer day, I still love throwing Frisbees (and other flying discs) with my friends,  playing a friendly game of KanJam, or throwing it freestyle while showing off some of our best moves. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of these aerodynamically sound, perfe  ctly round pieces of plastic.

Making Things and Making Things Last

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The Paper Airplane Soars into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Historians debate the origins of paper airplanes. Early attempts at constructing flying machines fascinated children and adults alike. The success of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 fostered renewed hope of powered flight and no doubt contributed to the purported invention, in 1909, of the paper airplane.

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Quite a Character

“Victoria? I have to tell you something… And you’re definitely going to roll your eyes.”

I stare at my stepson and brace myself for whatever words are about to follow. We are sitting around the table at my in-laws home eating spaghetti and he’s looking a bit worn out from the NHL hockey game he attended earlier that day in Montreal. I set my fork down in anticipation.

“Hit it,” I prompt.

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Wiffle Ball Joins the National Toy Hall of Fame Line-up

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Scooby Doo as Colonel Mustard in the Graveyard: Licensed Clue Games

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Happy Easy-Bake Oven Day!

Although I sometimes roll my eyes at the new commemorative “holidays” that get added to the calendar, I’m actually delighted to see that November 4, 2017 has been declared the first annual National Easy-Bake Oven Day. I can’t promise that I’ll be sending greeting cards to my friends and family to honor the occasion, but it’s good to know that one of the classic toys in the National Toy Hall of Fame is drawing renewed attention—naturally by way of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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What Makes a Game Classic? My Buddy Plays Mahjong

What makes a game classic? Part of the answer is longevity. Most people consider chess classic; we’ve played it for centuries. What about playing cards? Woodblock-printed cards appeared during China’s Tang dynasty (618–907), while written rules for card games were first seen in15th-century Europe. Another characteristic of classic games is continued popularity. Games such as Monopoly in the 1930s and Scrabble during the 1950s broke sales records at first. But they continued to sell in the years that followed and do so today.

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Playthings and Intellectual Property

I was a visiting Research Fellow at The Strong museum in July 2017. While at the museum, I researched the history of the toy industry, focusing on the ways in which the main trade journal, Playthings, represented the struggles of different companies to capitalize on the different opportunities the market offered to them. In doing so, I traced the links between intellectual property law and the making of the U.S. toy industry in the early 20th century.

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What Goes Around, Comes Around

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Preserving the First Video Game Merchandising Display Unit

Reading reports about some retail store closings, it’s hard to ignore that many of us often prefer shopping online with millions of products at our fingertips to navigating a shopping cart through the aisles of our local retailers.

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