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“The North Pole has nothing on the Strong Museum,” said Chris Bensch, the chief curator at the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York. “We are the largest museum of toys, dolls, games, and video games in the world.” And with more than 510,000 toys and collectibles in the museum’s collection, it’s likely that even Santa Claus himself would envy this playground of fun and imagination.
The earliest collections in the museum date back to the 1600s, but the majority of toys that most kids today would recognize are from about 1850 to the present day, a time period noted as the era of mass production and the industrialization of the toy industry. Aside from its vast archives, the Strong Museum is also home to the National Toy Hall of Fame, which acknowledges significant toys that have helped cultivate imagination and creativity among generations of children.
To talk about the museum’s collections and this year’s 2019 inductees into the National Toy Hall of Fame, Chris Bensch spoke with BuzzFeed News and shared with us his sincere love for toys.
Why do you feel it’s important to preserve the history of toys?
Chris Bensch: Play is an overlooked part of the past, and kids in general get overlooked as history gets written. One of the things that I’m struck with over and over again is that all over the nation, you find specialized museums — places like aviation museums — but really only a limited number of us care about planes, while every single one of us have had the experience of being a kid. All of us have played with toys, and it’s something that taps into the core of our identities as kids and grown-ups.
How do you decide what toys are added to the collections and what doesn’t make the cut?
CB: We think about play and toys very broadly. We always want to capture both the truly typical, but also the game changers along the way. In 2019, as the year winds down, we’ll have added more than 6,000 items into the museum’s collection. Some very old and some really new. There are some toys that we receive from individuals and others that we get in the hundreds from significant collectors.
Absolutely. In fact, right now we are working our way through a massive collection from a gentleman who loved bubbles and bubble toys. We’re so grateful for people who let their obsessions flow and really dive deep into something they love. We’re delighted to be able to then leverage their deep expertise and the time they’ve committed to building these specialized collections.
How have toys changed over the years?
Sometimes I’m inclined to think that play itself doesn’t change as much as the skin of toys changes. One of the trends I’ve certainly witnessed and that has been going on for more than 100 years is licensed products and licensed characters on toys. It’s not something as new as we might think, but it’s something that’s been intensifying, especially in the years since the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977.
We also see a sort of cycle in regards to generations of children. Kids who were growing up in the 1980s now have kids of their own — and low and behold, things like Care Bears and Masters of the Universe are suddenly enjoying a resurgence as grown-ups want to give their kids the same toys that they grew up with.
How does a toy make it into from your vast collections into the National Toy Hall of Fame?
The National Toy Hall of Fame has been in existence since 1998. It started in a little museum in Salem, Oregon, and came to the Strong Museum in Rochester New York Since 2002. Ever since then, we’ve been inducting two or three classic toys that are really deserving of commemoration in our point of view.
There’s currently 71 toys in the hall of fame and all of these are united in having icon status. Everyone can immediately recognize them. These are the toys that have longevity; they aren’t the sort of one-season sensation. They’re toys that have the best qualities of play — learning, creativity, discovery, and socialization. They’re not the ones you play with for 10 minutes, shove under your bed, and never think of again.
So who are the 2019 inductees?
Three lucky toys got into the hall of fame this year. The oldest of the three is the coloring book, which has been around in one form or another for more than 100 years. Certainly fitting, Crayola Crayons got into the hall of fame in the hall of fame’s first year, so they’ve been waiting for coloring books to show up.
Second are Matchbox cars, something that I’ve been personally lobbying for ever since Hot Wheels got into the hall of fame a number of years ago. Matchbox cars were actually the first miniature cars that hit the market, so it’s nice that now both of them are represented in the hall of fame.
Finally, the newest inductee this year is the card game Magic the Gathering, one that really has proven the power of fantasy, collecting, and competition. It’s a creative card game that allows you to assemble the deck for your competition; you aren’t limited to what a manufacturer makes, and they have certainly taken advantage of that with more than 20 billion cards produced since 1993.
For so many of our visitors, seeing these toys in the hall of fame sparks a discovery of things that maybe you hadn’t had reason to think of for years. We get more than half a million visitors every year to the Strong Museum and one of the refrains I hear over and over again on the exhibit floor from people from all sorts of ages is, “I had one of those!”
Here are some of our favorite inductees from previous years of the National Toy Hall of Fame:
Etch a Sketch
Game of Life
Magic 8 Ball
Mr. Potato Head
Nintendo Game Boy