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.

Valentines for Trolls

Barber Valentine, 1850-1875.Sometimes it seems as if civility and kindness are in exceptionally short supply today. The Internet liberates a portion of the populace from any standards of decent behavior. As I catch myself lamenting about the dark side of human nature, it helps me to think about Valentine’s Day and bear in mind that bad behavior is nothing new. “What?!” you exclaim, “Valentine’s Day? That day of chocolates and roses for sweethearts? How do snarkiness and insults apply there?” But come with me, back to the Victorian period, and you’ll discover that our forebears weren’t always the saintly paragons we might envision.

Bustle Valentine, about 1875. Examining valentine history reveals a long tradition of malicious pranks. In the days prior to postage stamps or FedEx, it was the recipient of mail—not the sender—who paid the cost. That situation led to a popular Valentine’s Day prank of sending a box filled with rocks or bricks to someone you disliked. When the recipient anted up the price of shipment for a heavy package, they’d then open the box to discover the weighty and worthless contents. Dissed again!

People without such resourcefulness in pranks could turn to commercial cards that offered the sting of an insulting rhyme attached to an unflattering illustration. By some estimates, these so-called “vinegar valentines” accounted for 50 percent of valentine sales. Anyone with an ax to grind could pick up a comical valentine card targeted at a very particular person—be that a barber inclined to upselling, an overdressed woman, or a lazy salesman—and let them know precisely the nature of their flaws of character or appearance. And of course, these nasty cards were always sent without a signature—a forerunner of Internet anonymity. 

Salesman Valentine, about 1920. Reflecting on our present circumstances, I think it’s probably better that people a century ago or more restricted their anonymous revenge and shaming to a single day out of the year, as odd as it may seem that they chose Valentine’s Day to express their scorn and aggression. Optimist that I am, I can hope that people today return to that earlier tradition and restrict themselves to venting on just February 14. Meanwhile, the pessimistic side of me will hope that my mailbox and inbox stay free from the zing of any vinegar valentines.

Football: Redemption through Violence

Every fall, across the United States, young men strap on helmets, crowds gather to cheer, and players smash into each other on the gridiron. Football is one of the country’s favorite pastimes, and today it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. And yet it’s also a sport that has come under attack for the injuries it can cause players, especially those related to damage to the brain, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

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Diving into D&D

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Ninja Princess and the Erasure of Women in Video Games

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Filling a Long-Felt Want: The Origin of Playthings Magazine

At the turn of the 20th century, the toy market in the United States relied heavily on European imports—only 30 percent of the toys sold were produced domestically. Retailers and salesmen depended on buyers who traveled abroad for goods and news of industry trends. In 1902, a group of American toy companies sought to change the status quo, stationing themselves in a lower Manhattan hotel for the month of February to entice toy buyers with American-made products as they departed for Europe and arrived home again.

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Game Development Is a Harsh Mistress

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Of Practical Jokes and Silliness

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Those Colorful Crayons

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America’s Favorite Game and Success Story: Uno!

Have you played Uno?

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Must-Have Holiday Toys—Past, Present, and Future

Is there someone on your holiday gift-buying list who deserves a memorable toy this season? I’m here to tell you to look no further than the must-have toys of yesteryear to come up with a gift that’s sure to delight—a strategy that will spare you from duking it out in the toy aisle over the latest hot plaything that’s selling at a premium.

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Pinball Flips, Thumps, and Pops into the National Toy Hall of Fame

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