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.”

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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The Picnic Tradition: Playing Together and Staying Together

Labor Day weekend will be filled with the lighting of grills, the balancing of over-filled paper plates on knees, and the splashing of feet in lakes and pools. It’s prime picnic time in America! People have been picnicking for more than 500 years. The French term “pique-nique” first appeared in print in 1694, referring to an indoor, potluck-type affair. Outdoor dining most likely has its roots medieval hunting feasts as documented in paintings and tapestries from the period, and the French term was adopted and adapted by the British to refer these outdoor affairs.

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Teetotums

“Are you a child or a teetotum?” a creature asks Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The bewildered Alice can’t think what to say in reply. Spun from one mad adventure to another, she might well resemble the iconic “teetotum,” or spinning top, that was used in 19th-century board games.

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The Myth of the Magical Summer: The Tropes, Transformations, and Transitions of American Childhood

“Summer just opens the door and lets you out." Deb Caletti, Honey, Baby, Sweetheart The front of a school building shimmers in the sun. A loud bell rings. The doors burst open and a flood of children spills out, cheering and tossing papers into the air. This image, used to the point of cliché, signals the start of summer and the freedom (albeit temporary) from the restrictions of school, the expectations of parents, and the anxieties of peer relations. In those precious ten weeks, an awkward misfit can shed his skin and emerge a swan, a hero, or a man.

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Rack ‘Em Up

I grew up in a small town with a population of roughly 5,000. It may not look it now, but it was once booming with activity and businesses. A basket factory and a canning factory ranked among the major employers. Then the train quit making stops in town. Without convenient access to supplies, factories slowly closed and the population dwindled. But what became of the train station and the hotel attached to it? That is a key part of my childhood.

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Preserving Carol Shaw’s Trailblazing Video Game Career

Carol Shaw, the first widely recognized female game designer and programmer, has donated to The Strong a collection of console games, printed source code, design documents, sketches, reference materials, and promotional objects representing games she created for Atari, Inc.

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Gotta Catch ‘Em All!

Since last summer, you may have noticed small groups of millennials walking briskly toward landmarks surrounded by people staring intently at their smartphone screens. Every now and then, cries of delight or disdain erupt from the gatherers. “Oh good, a Snorlax!” someone murmurs appreciatively. “Just another Rattata!” another person groans.

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Playing the "Good War"

The recent decision by the producers of Call of Duty:WWII to return the game’s setting to World War II—after a detour into modern warfare and futuristic science fiction—reflects not only the franchise’s success with this period but also the fact that no other war has so captured the imagination of playmakers and players.

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Nerf Ball

“Stop playing with that

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