Clue, Monopoly, Apples to Apples, Sorry, Battleship and Life are just a few of the board games that my family has played together during our long nights of social distancing. If you are like us, maybe you’ve revisited some old favorites too. It’s both surprising and gratifying that in this technological age, when my kids can go online any hour of the day and play chess with people all over the world, that they are still interested in the same board games that I spent endless summer nights playing with my cousins and friends as a kid. To that end it’s opportune that Heritage Museums and Gardens has selected the theme “Let’s Play! New England Toy Stories” for this season’s special exhibit.
The exhibit includes toys and games from the handmade to the mass produced—all which have local roots.
Amanda Wastrom, assistant curator at Heritage, is the force behind “Let’s Play!” Ms. Wastrom explained that the special exhibit is an example of a museum’s collection inspiring a larger exhibit.
“As curators, part of our job is not just to do exhibitions but to maintain and take care of the museum collections,” said Ms. Wastrom, adding that to this end the museum has been undertaking a multiyear project going through everything in its collection and reviewing it object by object. Each month tackling a different subject—one month sculpture, another painting. Heritage has what Ms. Wastrom described as a small but decent collection of antique American-made toys, predominantly from the late 1800s and early 1900s. There are a lot of cast iron toys and tin toys she said. “So the month that we got all of the toys out and we’re going through them we started to notice one was made in Connecticut, another in Massachusetts, another in Rhode Island.”
In fact some of the biggest toy makers in the United States were based in New England. “Some of the ones in the 19th century that people may not be familiar with, toy makers such as Ives or the Gong Bell Manufacturing Company, were New England-based; and then in the 20th century, some of the big names that I think everyone would know, companies like Parker Brothers, Hasbro and Milton Bradley, were all New England-based companies.”
“There is this rich toy-making history in the region and it seemed like it would be fun to celebrate that,” said Ms. Wastrom. “A lot of the objects that are from our collection don’t have an opportunity to be shown very often and some of them haven’t been shown before, so it’s a win-win all the way around.”
Ms. Wastrom estimated that one-third of the objects in the exhibit are from Heritage’s collection and two-thirds from other sources. “There are about 22 different people and organizations that we borrowed from. It’s a wide range, including private collectors and nonprofits and organizations.”
“A topic like toys is huge and it’s not my area of specialty so it was a huge learning curve for me,” Ms. Wastrom said. “There are institutions and places that specialize in play and the history of toy making. I just jumped in and tried to absorb as much as possible. Limiting the exhibit to New England certainly helped.”
“We tried to do the best we could and to show as many different kinds of things as we could,” said Ms. Wastrom. “I knew I wanted certain companies and certain cultures represented in terms of not just mainstream manufacturing and individual makers but also what Native Americans were making and playing with as well. We tried to get a broad range of samples.”
The toys and games in the exhibit date from 1800 to the present. “We have items that were made by hand by Native American artists just a few months ago for the exhibit,” Ms. Wastrom said.
As an example of a toy that’s likely familiar to all, the exhibit will contain several examples of Mr. Potato Head.
Originally released by Hasbro, whose offices were and still are in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the toy was the company’s first major hit. Appearing in 1952, Mr. Potato Head was the first toy that was ever marketed by a TV commercial. “We have the original, which was called Mr. Potato Head’s Funny Face Kit, which required buyers to supply their own potato,” said Ms. Wastrom, “and an example from the 1970s and then the last one is a prototype for a piece that was from the 1990s.”
Including prototypes in the exhibit was something Ms. Wastrom felt was important. “I think that it’s really interesting to see the pieces and parts and how does a toy go from an idea to an actual products,” she said, adding that they’ve tried to include prototypes or sketches if they were available.
Mr. Potato Head is also an example, said Ms. Wastrom, of toys evolving out of parents observing what their children were interested in and expanding on the concept. With Mr. Potato Head, the story goes that originator George Lerner, frustrated by the way his children were playing with their food, gathered items from around the house and a few potatoes and made a face, eventually selling the idea to Hassenfled Brothers, which would later become Hasbro.
Another toy that most people would recognize is Furby. The talking robotic “pet” was released in 1998 and has become one of the best-selling toys ever. “There’s so many fascinating things about the way Furby arrived,” said Ms. Wastrom. “I didn’t realize it but apparently there’s more computing power in the little chip inside Furby than there was on the lunar landing module that was used in the Apollo space mission in 1969.” Furby was a pivot point for Hasbro in that the toy was so successful the company went on to do many more animatronic toys. It was also the first toy to take animatronics and make it work.
“There were certainly animatronic toys before Furby,” said Ms. Wastrom, “but they were expensive and they were clunky and they didn’t really do much.” Furby really brought together technology and aesthetics successfully. It was soft, furry and cute, and at $29.99 it was affordable. “It had this perfect storm of different things going for it,” Ms. Wastrom said.
In a blog post about the exhibit, Ms. Wastrom said that learning about the origins of some games had been especially fun.
Considered the most successful board game of all time, Monopoly was initially released in 1935 by Parker Brothers of Salem. Monopoly’s success would help propel Parker Brothers into one of the biggest American game manufacturers in the 20th century, but the game’s origins date back to a little-known game called The Landlord’s Game, patented by Elizabeth Magie Phillips in 1904. Ms. Phillips created the game to teach players about the single tax theory of Henry George, hoping the game would explain how landlords get money and keep it, thereby pointing out injustices. Eventually Monopoly ended up in the hands of Charles Darrow, who spruced up the board with some color illustrations and began produced and distributing it as his own. He eventually sold it to Parker Brothers. Ms. Phillips, for her part, got little recognition and even less compensation.
In the category of less-familiar-but-still-intriguing toys, Ms. Wastrom said that one of her favorites was the Atomic Energy Lab by A.C. Gilbert. The company, operational between 1908 and 1966 and based out of New Haven, Connecticut, was best known for being the inventors of the Erector Set. “They carved out their niche making science toys, chemistry sets and microscopes,” said Ms. Wastrom. Between 1950 and 1951 they made an atomic energy lab kit. “It’s basically a science kit, but it’s all about atomic energy,” said Ms. Wastrom, noting that in that era atomic energy was on the mind of a large swath of the American public. “Any time there’s a trend like that, toymakers tend to latch on.” In his memoir, A.C. Gilbert said that the atomic energy lab kits were created at the request of the United States government. “There wasn’t anything formal,” said Ms. Wastrom, “but the government definitely wanted the public to get on board with this toy.”
“The fascinating thing is that in the kit there was a cloud chamber, a working geiger counter, and little samples of radioactive materials that you could test.” The kit was only produced for one or two years and didn’t sell well because the sticker price was $50, which back in 1950 was the equivalent of $500 today, plus it was complicated for a lot of people.
“It’s an example of how toys and games throughout the years have often been a reflection of what’s important or what was on the mind of whatever the culture was at the time,” said Ms. Wastrom, “plus you look at it and think ‘oh my goodness, they had radioactive materials in children’s toys.’”
Another lesser-known but interesting toy in the exhibit is a steam train that was made by Weeden Manufacturing Company out of New Bedford. The company, in business from 1884 to 1952, was known for their steam trains and steam engines.
“They were basically miniature versions of the real thing,” said Ms. Wastrom. “The steam engine actually worked. It was stoked with alcohol to fuel the boiler. There was an actual fire in it.” Ms. Wastrom surmised that the train probably wasn’t so much played with as it was set up and watched. “It was one of the most successful train toys that were manufactured between 1890 and around 1910. Weeden sold thousands of these trains,” said Ms. Wastrom, adding that it’s possible to find YouTube videos of the working trains.
In an effort to be inclusive, the exhibit includes the toy-making traditions of several Native American tribes, including the Wampanoags. Ms. Wastrom said one of her favorite components of this part of the exhibit are a pair of leather dolls that were made in 2012 by Anita Mother Bear Peters. “Doll making was an important craft tradition, particularly here in the Northeast but elsewhere in the United States as well,” said Ms. Wastrom.
“One thing I found interesting to learn about a lot of the Native American toys was that every toy had an educational component to it,” said Ms. Wastrom, adding that while this is true of a lot of toys today, she felt that it took Westerners a long time to realize that toys and play were a good thing for kids. “For a while it was not.”
“With Native American populations, at least to my understanding, from the get-go they were trying to incorporate play and learning into the way they raised their children.” As an example, Ms. Wastrom said that often adults would make a doll for a small child but as that child got older they would make dolls for themselves. “These were leather dolls so there was learning to sew and also to process animal hides. There were all these different steps you had to go through to make a doll so that by the time you mastered the doll-making process you had probably also mastered the skills that you needed to make your own clothes.”
“One reason we liked the subject of toys in general,” explained Ms. Wastrom “is that we get a wide range of visitors at Heritage, our most common group being multigenerational, so trying to find something that is engaging to toddlers and preschoolers but also to their parents and potentially their grandparents, it’s sometimes a challenge; but with toys, you either play them or you played them at some point or there’s a nostalgia factor. A lot of adults play board games. Some of the original games and toys in our collection weren’t made for children. They were made for adults, things like checkers and chess, for example.”
In addition to borrowing items for the exhibit from individual collectors and cultural institutions, Ms. Wastrom worked closely with the Hasbro Company in Rhode Island. “I got a behind-the-scenes look at their offices and production areas where they develop and test models and prototypes.” Ms. Wastrom said she also got to view the company’s archives. Hasbro purchased both Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers so there are achieved materials for all three companies. “It was really fun to research. Walking down their aisles was like walking through the toy store of my childhood.”
Ms. Wastrom said the through her research she’s been struck by how toys really haven’t changed that much over hundreds of years. They may be made out of different materials now but the concepts are the same. “Kids have been playing with pull toys for example, little animals with strings attached to them, for hundreds of years. They’ve played with vehicle toys, maybe it was a cart and a cow that someone carved out of wood, and then it was a train, and then it was a car, and then a plane and then a rocket ship but it’s all the same idea.”
With a 100-acre campus, Heritage has a lot more diversity than some museums. “That’s always been something quirky about Heritage that’s been hard to explain,” said Ms. Wastrom, but it may turn out that it’s a good thing. “I have a feeling people are going to be looking for the type of experience we can offer. Hopefully we can transition to a safe social distancing type of experience.”
Heritage Museums and Gardens is hoping to open as soon as they get the green light from Governor Charles D. Baker Jr. It’s likely the grounds will be able to open before indoor exhibit spaces.
The irony of the timing of “Let’s Play,” is that Ms. Wastrom describes the exhibit as one of the most interactive and hands-on exhibits Heritage has ever planned. Now with the pandemic upon us, Ms. Wastrom has had to rethink many of those interactive features. “It’s happening at a time when people may not want to touch things, so we’ve had to rethink some of the elements and ask ourselves how can we make this so people don’t have to touch it but can still interact with it.”
“Right now it’s up in the air,” said Ms. Wastrom. “We’re at the wait-and-see phase, waiting to see what our visitors will want to do and feel safe and comfortable doing.”