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.

Outlook Good: Magic 8 Ball Inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame

Magic 8 Ball, Alabe Crafts Inc., about 1960. Our lives are complicated and expectations for the future lie between idle longing and fervent wishing. As I entered the angst of middle school, I often wondered “what might happen?” and “what should I do about it.” I sought an oracle that could illuminate the future for me and Magic 8 Ball proved an intriguing way to harmlessly flirt with the future. On November 8, 2018, Magic 8 Ball took its place of honor in the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Syco Slate: The Pocket Fortune Teller, Alabe Crafts Inc., about 1948 The first stage in Magic 8 Ball’s history occurred when Cincinnati clairvoyant Mary Carter created the Syco-Slate, a small chalkboard that she placed in a sealed container. She would then ask her clients a question and they would hear the sound of chalk scratching across a board. When she opened the container, Mary revealed the magical message on the chalkboard. Mary’s son, Albert, predicted that his future lay in advancing his mother’s creation.

Without a doubt, the pair turned to family member Abe Bookman, a business-savvy man who had graduated from the Ohio Mechanics Institute in 1921, to handle the logistics. Bookman and Carter formed Alabe Crafts Company of Cincinnati and sought to introduce a novelty that would provide answers emerging randomly out of its inky depths. Carter applied for a patent, but sources say that he died soon after from his eccentric lifestyle and alcoholism. But Bookman proceeded with the project on his own.

The size of an overgrown softball with a flat spot that let it stand as a desktop paperweight, Magic 8 Ball would respond to questions with one phrase framed in a triangle in the round window. What’s the mysterious secret to this toy? The black ball holds a 20-sided polyhedron that floats in diluted dark blue propylene glycol. Inscribed on each of its facets is a different answer to any yes-or-no question.

Magic 8 Ball, The Muppet Show, Mattel, Inc., 2003.

When I played with Magic 8 Ball, I found that if you pose a question, one out of four times Magic 8 Ball puts you off, offering only “ask again later,” “better not to tell you now,” “reply hazy, try again,” or something similar, which to many 12-year-olds is much more reassuring then a definite “no” or a hedged negative like “outlook not so good.” What I liked most about Magic 8 Ball was that it served as a confidant. Any uncertainty, secret romance, or hope could be confessed, and it responded. It’s this versatility that appeals to children and adults.

Magic 8 Ball: Hello Kitty, Mattel, Inc., 2017. Magic 8 Ball has endured for more than a half-century. In the process it became an icon of popular culture. First appearing on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the 1960s, the toy showed up over the years on Friends, Seinfeld, Murphy Brown, and The Daily Show. Variations of the original seem almost as popular as the real thing. Fortune-telling Magic 8 Balls feature Homer Simpson, the Muppets, Hello Kitty, and Japan’s Gudetama, among others. Individuals can commission a customized version, and online editions respond to typed questions.

Millions of Americans have purchased their Magic 8 Balls during the last seven decades, yet the toy is still statistically gaining in popularity. According to one Internet survey, Magic 8 Ball ranks among America’s 20 favorite toys from the 20th century. One humorist called it the “best decision-making model of the millennium.” So, Magic 8 Ball, will you still be providing a fun glimpse of the future a hundred years from now? My guess is the answer floating to the surface might be “You may rely on it.”

The A-Team: On the Jazz in the ‘80s

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... the A-Team.

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A Flick of the Wrist: Flying Discs and Frisbees

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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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