On the banks of Lake Ontario in Rochester, New York, a colorful testament to the power and importance of having fun stands. Within the walls of The Strong National Museum of Play, kids and families explore and learn while engaging with the world’s largest and most extensive collection of toys and historical elements related to the driving force behind the toy industry: play.
“The Strong strives to have the most comprehensive aggregation of toys, dolls, games, video games, and other electronic games,” says Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, curator at the toy museum “Individually and collectively, it’s important that they reflect the events, trends, and cultural values of various times from which they came. It’s also important to stay cognizant of current trends and new playthings in the market.”
The National Toy Hall of Fame is housed within The Strong’s ever-expanding collection. The Hall was founded in 1998 at A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village in Salem, Oregon. It was originally a collection within a museum inspired by inventor Alfred Carlton Gilbert, creator of the Erector set and co-founder of the Toy Manufacturers Association, better known today as The Toy Association.
In 2002, The Strong acquired the Hall and continues to build upon it with yearly inductions of timeless toys and games that are celebrated with year-long exhibitions.
Curators at The Strong seek finalists based on four key criteria: icon status, longevity, discovery, and innovation. These factors make for a collection of toys and games that are widely remembered as more than just passing fads, and foster learning and creativity through play. Toys that have been recognized as true innovators that made a huge impact in play or toy design may be inducted based on that alone. In some cases, a “toy” may not even be a traditional toy at all. With that in mind, the cardboard box, stick, and blanket are official members of the Hall of Fame, and the smartphone and bubble wrap raised eyebrows as finalists a couple of years ago.
According to The Strong’s Vice President for Collections and Chief Curator Christopher Bensch, the Hall of Fame received nearly 3,000 nominations for almost 700 different toys in 2020.
“During the review of the public nominations, The Strong’s curators and historians have the opportunity to suggest the names of other toys that, while culturally significant, might not have received the same degree of popular attention or awareness,” Bensch says. “Once the finalists are determined, they go to a National Selection Advisory Committee for weighted ranking. The public can also vote, and their collective vote counts as one ballot equal to that of another judge.”
THE NEW CLASS
Baby Nancy, Jenga, and sidewalk chalk joined the ranks among a total of 74 iconic playthings that have been inducted into the Hall of Fame since 1998. The trio edged out other icons, including the game of bingo, Breyer Horses, Lite-Brite, Masters of the Universe, My Little Pony, Risk, Sorry!, Tamagotchi, and Yahtzee.
Following the Los Angeles Watts Riots, a community organization called Operation Bootstrap Inc. launched Shindana Toys in 1968 as part of its efforts to create opportunities for residents of a poverty-stricken South Los Angeles neighborhood. With backing from Chase Manhattan Bank, Mattel, and Sears Roebuck & Co., among others, the company launched Baby Nancy as the first toy in a lineup meant to “reflect Black pride, Black talent, and most of all, Black enterprise,” according to The Strong. By Thanksgiving, the doll was a hit in LA, and by Christmas, Baby Nancy was available at select retailers across the country.
The doll made its debut at the 1969 North American International Toy Fair and soon made its way to shelves at retailers including Sears, J.C. Penney, Woolworth, and Montgomery Wards.
While the doll was revolutionary in being the first Black doll sold across the U.S., The Strong notes that Mattel’s investment may not have been entirely altruistic as “some speculate that Mattel used Shindana as an idea incubator for how to reach Black consumers and had the power to pull its products off the shelves when the company was ready to release its own set of Black dolls.”
A widely circulated advertisement from Chase featured Shindana employees under a headline reading, “With our help, these dolls are making a profit for these guys in Watts,” along with a closing statement reading: “A good motive for change is the profit motive.”
“Baby Nancy had never been a nominee prior to 2020,” Bensch says. “The issues related to racial equity that received attention in the past year helped emphasize her importance as a breakthrough Black doll and a groundbreaking product for an increasingly diverse group of toys that have gradually reached the market in the years since her introduction in 1968.”
The success of Baby Nancy led to the debut of other lines with more representation, including the Barbie-esque Career Girl Wanda, Slade Super Agent, and licensed dolls and games based on Jimmie Walker, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Diana Ross, and more.
Shindana Toys closed in 1983, but its legacy lives on.
Jenga launched in early 1982 as a creation from Leslie Scott, who found inspiration in the wooden blocks that she played with as a kid growing up in Africa. The classic set of 54 precision wooden blocks didn’t seem like a sure-fire hit at first, debuting at London’s Harrod’s department store at a time when, as Scott recalled to The Strong, “computer games were just taking off, and everyone thought the board game was dead.”
Some short stints with companies such as Irwin and Schaper toys led Jenga to Milton Bradley, which ramped up marketing by leaning into the suspenseful nature of stacking the blocks high while hoping that the next piece to be removed wouldn’t make it fall.
Nearly 40 years later, Jenga is a globally recognized icon that has been reproduced in giant and miniature forms and has been issued in licensed versions countless times over. Nearly 400,000 fans follow the brand on Facebook, where the brand stays current in front of players new and old.
According to Hasbro, Jenga has been sold in more than 117 countries around the world.
Bensch has been rooting for sidewalk chalk since it first appeared as a finalist back in 2016. The simple art supply with roots in the Paleolithic era has been a staple of play for as long as anyone can remember. It’s a true classic.
“There are few limits to what kids can do with chalk,” says Bensch. “Every sidewalk square, patio, and driveway holds the potential for a work of art, a winning game of strategy and cleverness, or a demonstration of physical agility, poise, and balance.”
Nominations for the 2021 class are now open at toyhalloffame.org. Finalists will be revealed later this year.
MISSING IN ACTION
While The Strong plays host to an epic toy collection, the National Toy Hall of Fame itself contains some glaring omissions, several of which are repeat nominees that just never seem to cross the finish line.
“In the 2020 list of finalists, My Little Pony held the honor of being a six-time finalist without yet earning a spot in the Hall of Fame,” says Chief Curator Christopher Bensch. ”Prior to that, Magic 8 Ball was a finalist seven times before finally earning its place in the Hall.”
For Transformers, there may be “More Than Meets the Eye,” but you won’t find Optimus Prime or Megatron parked anywhere in the Hall, nor will you find Applejack, Twilight Sparkle, or any My Little Pony characters.
The iconic Fisher-Price Corn Popper has been vying for a spot since at least 2012, and Lite-Brite has been on the ballot several times since at least 2010. Similarly, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Hess Toy Truck are still waiting for parking spots.
According to Bensch, “There’s no limit to the number of times that a toy or game can be one of the finalists for the National Toy Hall of Fame without being inducted.”
He-Man and the Masters of the Universe are also awaiting the call.
This article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of the Toy Book. Click here to read the full issue!