The History of Toys (Reflections on Kansas City's Toy Museum and my Inner 9-Year Old)
I had the pleasure of visiting the Kansas City Toy Museum on the University of Missouri in Kansas City’s campus and it really brings out a lot of your inner nine-year-old. The short opening video noted that it was “for the young at heart” and all about creativity. Indeed, there is quite the parallel between the Maker’s Faire, Hallmark Museum and Kansas City Toy Museum in that they all have to do with creativity and have a focus on the young.
A good portion of the museum’s items had been donated by collectors. Some of the marble contraptions on display (to be discussed below) looked like they could have come right out of the Maker’s Faire. And interestingly enough, one major collector was a former Hallmark employee named Barbara Marshall, who mostly collected miniatures and was also a major benefactor of those who created miniatures. The description of her stated that, “Setting aside her personal stylistic preferences, she encouraged artists to create their dream works in fine scale.” This is a general theme regarding creativity. Supervisors and benefactors can create a process for coming up with creative works (i.e. empathic design, the Kano model, etc.), but they cannot demand creativity fit within a strict mold. Human creativity just doesn’t work that way.
While obvious with a toy museum, it also has become apparent through writing these reflection papers that there is a connection between youth and creativity (or at least the young at heart). Kids don’t feel bound to traditional modes of thinking and thus “the world is their oyster.” Indeed, the museum noted of another collector, Mary Harris, that collecting toys helped her connect to her childhood. And a video showed an old man reflecting on some of the toys he played with during World War II while he was a young kid. It was very interesting just how important these toys were to him. It’s very rare that adults attach such importance to such things they acquire in adulthood.
As a matter of fact, I felt a deep sense of nostalgia when I walked by a case with an old Nintendo and Sega Genesis game consoles. I don’t play video games much anymore, but I still occasionally play Tetris on an old Game Boy I have. And weirdly enough, I enjoy that much more than any of the extremely sophisticated modern games they come out with these days. As noted above, there’s something about our childhoods that inspire creativity and it’s probably that sense that “everything is possible.”
The museum was stacked full of all sorts of old toys, dolls and games. There were also videos and displays on how such things were made that were quite interesting. For example, a short video explained how Hot Wheels cars were made. First designers sketched out the design. Then a prototype that was five times the size of the final car was created. This allowed the designers to carefully sketch out all the detail that would be instilled into the tiny toy car. Finally, the design was finalized and a process of mass production was created whereby thousands of such toys could be made every day.
That being said, the two most interesting parts of the museum were the miniatures and the marbles exhibit.
As stated above, many of the miniatures were given to the museum from various collectors. And some of these miniatures were truly incredible. Often the creators would make miniature houses that were opened up so you could see into each room. Each room was then filled with miniature furniture and all the rest of the things you would see in a normal house and the intricate detail was truly spectacular. All of these pieces of art displayed incredible craftsmanship.
On the other hand, some of the miniatures were just stand-alone items, such as miniature chairs, tables, pianos or just about anything else that you could think of. Miniature sets such as these are not exactly what you would normally think of when imagining children’s toy. But they perhaps represent that even when we age, we all still have that “inner child.” And perhaps that’s what we need to reach for in order to tap into our own creativity.
My favorite of these miniatures was a miniature violin that was opened up. The inside of the violin was basically a display case for a bunch of even smaller violins, cellos and the like. This gave the piece a sense of abstractness that went along very well with the high-quality craftsmanship.
The Marble Exhibit
The museum also had a short tour on its marble exhibit. Marbles have existed since ancient times with marbles made of clay having been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs. Later on, people learned how to make them out of glass. And then, in 1910 (which just happens to be the year that Hallmark was founded, the subject of a previous article), entrepreneurs discovered how to mass produce marbles and they took off in popularity, particularly amongst young boys.
Many games started to grow out around this new-found popularity. One in particular was a game called “Ringer.” While it has fallen out of fashion, there are still tournaments that take place around the country.
The game involves holding a marble in your index finger and flicking it with your thumb with the goal of knocking other marbles out from the middle of a large ring. Each player had a “shooter marble” with which to shoot with and they would play the marble where it landed. So getting the marble to stop in the right spot was very important (similar to pool). In the middle of the ring were 14 marbles and the first person to knock seven of them out of the ring won.
All the while, various slang words grew up around the game such as “lag,” “fudging,” “ante,” and “slips.” This is similar to modern sports that have weird terms such as “blitz,” “alley-oop,” and “cherry picking.” Of course, many kids made up their own rules for various marble games as they do with just about everything else.
There was even a former national champion there who had won the tournament way back in 1948. The game is harder than you might imagine, although I did knock a few marbles out of the ring while trying. Overall, it proves that games are one of the biggest “toys” for kids and are a wellspring of creativity. Indeed, some research seems to show that games and competitive sports can be a great way to prepare kids for becoming entrepreneurs later in life.
The museum was more than just a trip down nostalgia lane and a testament to the craftsmanship of various toy makers. It also showed how important it is to tap into your “inner child” and get out of traditional ways of thinking when it comes to creativity. And this extends beyond just toy-making or general production, but also to branding and other parts of business. For example, as one display case noted regarding a G.I. Joe toy,
“Traditional wisdom dictated boys would not play with dolls, so Hassenfeld Brothers (later Hasbro Industries) coined the term ‘action figure.’”
One simple name change opened up half the market (boys) to playing with dolls. And the release of the G.I. Joe “action figure” in 1964 turned out to be a huge success.
Creativity must be channeled through in a process, but it can’t be constrained by traditional ways of thinking. And that was the greatest lesson to come out of the Kansas City Toy Museum.
"Every day is a new life to the wise man."
The Righteous Mind
Star Slate Codex
Consulting by RPM