Webster Museum

Joy of Play

Joy of Play
Joy of Play
Toys and Games

A look at the history of the toys and games that have helped shape how we play.

All work and no play may make Jack a dull boy, but even if you don't know Jack, it's difficult to ignore the significance of play throughout the years our lives. Providing a unique combination of both challenge and relaxation, play brings out the subtle complexities in the simplest of activities. Hopefully a few of the games and toys we present here will bring back a few fond memories.

While the hula hoop became a national fad in 1958, with 25 million hoops selling within a four month period, a smaller scale explosion in popularity for the twirled band occurred in 14th century England. The 1950's version benefitted from the emergence of modern plastics while the medieval version which was often made of wood or metal, was blamed for a variety of user injuries.

Girl Playing With Hoop And Stick by H. Armstong Roberts, circa 1930

1930 Fashion photo of Erna Carise by George Hoyningen-Huene

Hula Hooping Girl, a 2020 work by Bansky

Wham-O was the somewhat unorthodox company that popularized the hula hoop. They also introduced the world to the Slip 'N Slide, Silly String, and most notably, the Frisbee.

A pie pan from the Frisbie Pie Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Area students discovered that by turning it upside down, it made an excellent flying disc.

Walter Frederick Morrison, who was inspired to create the "Pluto Platter" after tossing a popcorn can lid with his girlfriend.

The original Pluto Platter, which would later be renamed the Frisbee after the pie pan.

Abner Doubleday

Abner Doubleday

and the origins of games

Doubleday Plaque History has a short and often murky memory. While it's not many that are long remembered for their accomplishments, it's far fewer that are remembered for the accomplishments of someone else.

In all likelihood, Abner Doubleday spent little time thinking about the game of baseball, its rules, or how it should be played. Wouldn't he be surprised to discover his name so intimately interweaved with a game he likely seldom, if ever played?

In 1905, the Mills commission was brought together to once and for all determine the true origin of the game of Baseball. When the story of Abner Doubleday was put before them thanks to a letter from a less than credible mining engineer by the name of Abner Graves, the commission was quick to embrace the tale. The commision was told that Abner Doubleday, an American Civil War general had created the game as a young man in Cooperstown, New York. Little was done to confirm Graves story. Facts that didn't quite fit were overlooked, and shortly thereafter, a shiny new legend was born.

In 1939, Cooperstown in a way, became the mythical Camelot of Baseball and the place to celebrate the "100th anniversary" of Baseball's creation.

Many of the games we know well today originated with the simplest of acts, like tossing a ball or swinging a stick. Often it would be difficult to determine the inventor of a game, as numerous people over centuries have made contributions that helped shape rules and refine a game's play.

Might we consider Doubleday a representation of all the unknown souls who helped shape baseball into America's game?

The Ball


A ball used for Town Ball, a predecessor to Baseball derived from the game of rounders.
Early balls were known as lemon peel balls because of their apparent resemblance to a lemon. They were often covered with a single piece of leather that had been cut into a "four petal flower" pattern, where the petals were pulled around an inner ball of scraps and sewn along the seams.
A "Gusset" or "H-pattern" stitched ball. Often balls were homemade or stitched by a local cobbler.
A lemon peel ball with exposed stitches.
A baseball found on a civil war battlefield.
The 1880's saw the emergence of the "figure-eight" two piece baseball cover that is used to this day.
By the 1890's the balls were becoming more refined and professionally manufactured.
The American League was established on January 28, 1901. The league used balls manufactured by A.J. Reach. Reach was purchased by Spalding in 1892, the maker of balls for the National League.
In 1910, a cork-core was introduced to baseballs. By 1925 the cork-core was coated in two layers of rubber.
In 1920, machine winders were introduced to wrap the ball's yarn.
The American and National leagues reached an agreement in 1934 that standardized the composition of the balls used in both leagues.
Since standardization, the Major League Baseball (MLB) ball has seen little alteration to its composition. Many of the changes were cosmetic, most notably the signature of the baseball president / commissioner printed on each ball changed depending on who was in office.
Rawlings had been making baseballs under contract for Spalding for some time. When the contract ended in 1977, Rawlings began using its own name on balls made for MLB.
Until 1974 the majority of baseballs used in the major leagues had horsehide covers. Due to its limited availability and increasing cost, MLB and Rawlings began to use cowhide instead.
In 2000, both the American and National leagues began using the same ball, marked with the MLB logo. In 2018, Rawlings was purchased by Seidler Equity Partners and MLB Properties.


The Bagatelle

The Bagatelle, which was named for the French chateau where the game was originally played, first appeared in 1777. The game required participants to poke an ivory ball up an inclined surface through the use of a cue, with the goal of having the ball rest within a semi circle ring of fixed pins. Abraham Lincoln was said to be extremely fond of the game.

Over time the game's dimensions decreased. The cue was replaced with a spring wrapped firing pin, and the larger ivory balls were replaced with small metal ones.

In the United States the game was marketed as Baffle Ball in the early 1930s and was the inspiration for pinball machines.

Jeu de la Grenouille

The French game, Jeu de la Grenouille (Game of the Frog) is a sophisticated interpretation of a penny toss game traditionally called "Toad in the Hole." As far back at the 18th century there are records of children playing a game known as "Chuck Farthing," where a small denomination coin such as a penny or farthing would be tossed towards a small hole that had been dug in the ground. Adults looking to get in on the game began cutting holes in pub tables or chairs for the purpose of tossing a coin through the opening.

A modern re-imagining on the game is the popular tailgate game of Cornhole.

The Kaleidoscope

While people have played with light and mirrors for centuries, it wasn't until 1815 that Sir David Brewster, a Scottish scientist, expertly placed a series of mirrors within a tube for the purpose of viewing patterns created by the random arrangement of colored objects. While Brewster patented his kaleidoscope in 1817, his drawings had already found their way into the hands of various manufacturers who quickly began producing inferior copies of his invention. In a period of three months, an estimated 200,000 kaleidoscopes were sold in London and Paris alone.

Brewster later used his expertise to refine the Stereoscope and the beacons used in lighthouses.

Board Games

Round the World with Nellie Bly

A game inspired by the global adventures of Nellie Bly, who proved she could best the fictional Phineas Fogg's 80 day journey around the world. Bly, the pen name of journalist Elizabeth Cochrane, completed her journey in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds.

The game was produced by the McLoughlin Brothers around 1890. McLoughlin Brothers was a prolific game and picture book manufacturer between 1858 and 1920. The company was sold to Milton Bradley in 1920.

Peter Coddle's Trip to New York

So popular was Peter Coddle's Trip to New York that numerous game companies of the time put out their own versions. The game was something of an 1890's version of Cards Against Humanity.

The Popular Game of Tiddledy Winks

Originally marketed to adults, the game of Tiddledy Winks was first patented in 1889 and was very popular through the 1890s.

The Game of Life

The Checkered Game of Life as it was originally known, changed the course of many lives. Most notably it changed the life of the game's creator, Milton Bradley. Despite limited resources, at the age of 24 Bradley set up a lithography shop and began producing his simple board game in 1860. While similar in appearance to other board games of the time, The Checkered Game of Life embraced the ideals of the American dream. It was an immediate success; a success that would eventually become the foundation of a board game empire.

Snakes and Ladders

The board game Snakes and Ladders was brought to the UK from India around 1890. In India the game was known as Moksha Patam and had been played there since the 2nd century.

Though a game of chance, Moksha Patam provided something of a morality lesson, rewarding players for virtue through ladders and punishing them for vice via snakes. When the game was brought to the UK, the Indian "virtues and vices" were replaced by more Victorian ideals of morality. Ladders labeled Thrift, Penitence and Industry led upward to squares of Fulfillment, Grace and Success, while snakes labeled Indulgence, Disobedience and Insolence sent you backward to Illness, Disgrace and Poverty.

In 1943, Milton Bradley introduced a toned down version of the game to the United States titled Chutes and Ladders.


In the early 1930's, Alfred Mosher Butts set out to design a board game. After carefully studying the common characteristics of existing games, Butts was taken by the popularity of crossword puzzles, and decided to create a game that required some of the skill of crossword puzzles but also included an element of chance. After some deliberation, he had settled upon using tile pieces, each etched with a letter of the alphabet. Next, Butts studied the frequency of individual letters and how often they appeared in publication. He counted each occurrence of a letter in the pages of the New York Times, The Saturday Evening Post and other popular news sources of the day, which helped him determine the frequency and point value each letter should have in his game. However, he only included 4 letter "S" tiles to reduce the opportunity for players to simply make works plural.

Initially Butts gave the name Lexico to his new game, but by the 1940s, after some revision he settled on the name Criss Cross Words. Despite his best efforts, no game company was interested in manufacturing his game. Eventually, Butts met James Brunot, an entrepreneur and game lover. Together they worked to refine the rules and appearance of the game. It was around 1948 that they came up with the name Scrabble, defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "to scratch, claw, or grope about clumsily or frantically."

James Brunot and his family rented a small abandoned schoolhouse in Dodgington, Connecticut. With the help of friends, they were able to produce about 12 Scrabble game sets in an hour. Each letter was hand stamped onto a wooden tile...one at a time.

Over time, word of the game spread. Many have credited Macy's president Jack Straus for helping to popularize the game by stocking it in his stores after playing the game while on vacation. With increased demand, The Brunot's were able to sell manufacturing rights to the game and have it produced by Selchow and Righter, a Long Island based game company. In its second year of US production, the game sold nearly 4 million sets.

In 1986, Selchow and Righter was sold to Coleco, which shortly after went bankrupt. Their assets were then purchased by Hasbro, who continues to produce the game in the United States. JW Spear began producing the game in Europe and Australia in 1955. JW Spear was purchased by Hasbro rival Mattel in 1994.

Pencil and Paper Games

Dots and Boxes / La Pipopipette

Édouard Lucas was a renowned mathematician who developed a whole slew of equations that most of us couldn't begin to comprehend. He also published the Dots and Boxes game in 1889.

Play the game here:

Tic Tac Toe

The game of Tic Tac Toe has origins that have been traced all the way back to 1300 BC. With that longevity, its no wonder a simple pencil and paper game evolved into a celebrity packed television game show beginning in 1965.

Stay tuned for more!


What began as a simple pencil and paper game in the early 1930s, became a physical game in 1967, and eventually one of the very first electronic games in 1979.

Stay tuned for more!

Patent?...What patent?


The official tale of Monopoly's creation differs considerably from the truth. Charles Darrow the man credited with inventing Monopoly was largely an opportunist who saw the financial potential of the homespun game. The game's real story began some 30 years before its commercial release in 1935.

Elizabeth Magie, who was an admirer of Henry George's economic ideas, began developing the game in 1902 to educate players about the short falls of laissez-faire capitalism. Her game became popular in a few college circles and began to evolve organically as people created their own homemade versions of the game.

The Landlord's Game created by Elizabeth Magie.

Author, Mary Pilon spent 5 years researching Monopoly's origin. Watch her recount parts of the story... or maybe purchase her book.

Further reading:
The Monopolists by Mary Pilon


On a family trip to Switzerland in 1956, Barbara Handler, the 15 year old daughter of Mattel founders, Ruth and Elliot Handler, was taken by a doll in a store window. Inspired by her daughter's reaction, Ruth Handler purchased several of the dolls to bring back to the states hoping to explore the possibility of manufacturing something similar for the American market. While Ruth intended to market her doll to young girls, the dolls she purchased were created for the amusement of adult men.

In 1952 the German newspaper Bild-Zeitung hired Reinhard Beuthien to create a somewhat risqué single panel comic for the pages of its paper. The comic Beuthien created featured a less than shy young woman named Lilli, whose attraction to men was often motivated by the size of their bank accounts. Aware of her "charms", she wasn't afraid to use them to make an impact.

Due to the popularity of the comic, toy designer Max Weissbrodt was hired to bring Lilli to life in the form of a stylish doll (pictured above). By 1953 the doll was being stocked by a growing number of tobacco shops, bars and adult-themed stores in Germany and several other European countries.

In 1959, when Mattel's new doll named Barbie began to be sold, the staff of Bild-Zeitung were stunned to see how closely Barbie resembled their Lilli.

Further reading:
Forever Barbie, by M.G. Lord
Barbie and Ruth, by Robin Gerber


Despite popular belief, Lego founder, Ole Kirk Christiansen and his son Godtfred did not originate the block system that would become synonymous with the Lego name. In fact, during the process of learning how to use the injection molding equipment they had purchased, they directly copied the brick designs of British toymaker, Hilary Fisher Page. The bricks pictured below are Kiddicraft Self-Locking Building Bricks manufactured by Page. According to Page's family, at the time of Hilary Page's death in 1957, he was not aware of Lego's existence. In 1981, Lego quietly purchased the assets of Page's firm in an out-of-court settlement.

Over the years Lego did make significant improvement to the brick design, most notably the development of the "inner clutch tubes" on the underside of a standard Lego brick, which provides greater adhesion than previous brick designs.

A website dedicated to Hilary Page's work

Yo-Yo / Bandalore

While children have been playing with discs attached to a string for centuries, the modern "Yo-Yo" began its journey to the United States in the Philippines. Pedro Flores, a Filipino immigrant, opened a small toy company in Santa Barbara, California in 1928 that specialized in the production of yo-yos. The yo-yo's primary distinction from the traditional stringed toy known as a "bandalore", was that the string was not directly attached to the disc, but looped around the center axle. With the disc free to move independent of its string it became possible to do a number of tricks.

In the Filipino language Tagalong, the word yoyo is defined as "move up and down; to fluctuate" [link] and is potentially the origin of the name.

Flores' yo-yos were selling very well. Seeing the toy's potential, Donald Duncan, an entrepreneur involved with Good Humor ice cream vans and parking meter manufacturing, purchased Flores' toy business in 1932 and began marketing the yo-yo as the Duncan Yo-Yo.

Louis XVII 1789, by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée-Lebrun

1791 Illustration

The Jewelled Bandalore 1905, by William Nicholson

Late 1920's-early 1930's Pedro Flores Original Tournament Yo-Yo

Duncan Jewelled Tournament Yo-Yo

Late 1920s-early 1930s Pedro Flores Yo-Yo

Late 1920s-early 1930s Pedro Flores Hand painted Yo-Yo

Duncan Wooden Yo-Yos

One of a kind


The Slinky is still manufactured in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, with machinery built by Richard James, the creator of the original Slinky. James' wife Betty, ran the business for nearly 40 years.

Rubik's Cube

Hungarian artist and architecture professor Ernő Rubik created his "Magic Cube" in 1974 and some have been trying to solve the puzzle ever since.

Etch A Sketch

In one of the more unique arrangements in the toy industry, André Cassagnes, a French electrician and kite designer, teamed up with an Ohio lithography company to create a truly iconic drawing implement.

History in Your Hand

1590, uncut hand-coloured woodcut

"The Cloisters" Playing Cards circa 1475–80, South Netherlandish

On display at the MET museum in New York City.

Late 17th century woodcut

18th century French suit cards made in Germany; brocade, hand-painted and inlaid with coloured fabrics; British Museum

18th century French suit cards made in Germany; brocade, hand-painted and inlaid with coloured fabrics; British Museum

Hand-coloured woodcut, etched duty cards made in Britain; c. 1801-1815; British Museum

circa 1845-1860. Cards by Charles Bartlet a.k.a. Samuel Hart of Philadelphia

1885. The first deck of Bicycle playing cards is published by the Russell & Morgan Printing Co. of Cincinnati.

Bicycle 1889. How could we at the Webster Museum pass up an opportunity to display a penny farthing bicycle?

Playing cards appear to have made their way to the western world during the 14th century. It is believed they originated in China during the 9th century, where woodblocks were used to transfer designs to the cards. Over time the idea spread through India, Persia, and Egypt, eventually reaching Europe and the the Americas.

While playing cards have evolved over the centuries, it's possible to look at cards from the 16th century and see many similarities with the card decks of today.

Initially a variety of regional "suits" were used throughout Europe. The hearts, diamonds, spades and clubs suits originated in France.

Playing Card Resources

Minute Man National Park Volunteer, Niels Hobbs shares his research on popular 18th century games of chance.

Art of Impossible: History of Playing Cards explained in 5 Minutes.

How Baseballs are made.

How Cricket Balls are made.

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Webster Museum