Toys

A virtual tour of the National Toy Hall of Fame

I. 

Of course it exists: the National Toy Hall of Fame, in Rochester, New York. To date, fifty-nine toys have been inducted, chosen through these criteria:  

  • Icon-status: The toy is widely recognized, respected, and remembered. 
  • Longevity: The toy is more than a passing fad and has enjoyed popularity over multiple generations. 
  • Discovery: The toy fosters learning, creativity, or discovery through play. 
  • Innovation: The toy profoundly changed play or toy design. 

Imagine wandering the National Toy Hall of Fame. What would you expect to find? Raggedy Ann, certainly, and her lesser known counterpart, Raggedy Andy. Crayola crayons. Mr. Potato Head and Baby Doll and Slinky. Candy Land (oh yes). Your old Etch A Sketch, screen marred with erased images of the past. 

And here’s something you didn’t expect: Cardboard Box. Not a mechanized cardboard box, or a decorated cardboard box, or a box hiding bits and pieces of a puzzle. Just a box: brown, with four flaps, about the size of a microwave oven. Or another, the size of a refrigerator. Or perhaps one as small as a shoebox. Any plain box will do: open, flaps flapping, empty of all content. 

Cardboard boxes came into use in the 19th century: a lightweight and reusable alternative to wooden crates. Once emptied, they could be flattened and stored away. Cardboard boxes were meant to be strictly utilitarian, but children always know better; they know the best use for something empty is to fill it with their own bodies. They know that emptiness is simply space waiting to be transformed. 

Remember? It could be Christmas or Hanukkah or your birthday. It could be the aftermath of a delivery, your parents preoccupied with whatever new shiny thing had arrived.   It could be a surprise waiting for you in an alleyway: Cardboard Box, set out with the trash.  

Cardboard Box beckons. What it contained becomes negligible, already known, practically forgotten. You squeeze yourself inside, feel the dry, thick-but-thin walls mold your body to a new shape. You smell the residue of Styrofoam, a few packing peanuts wafting at your feet. You become a present waiting to happen. 

Cardboard Box becomes a house, a cave, a castle. Cardboard Box becomes a car, a rocket, a train. Cardboard Box tips over and becomes a fort, a refuge. Who are you inside this box? According to the National Toy Hall of Fame, Inside a big cardboard box, a child is transported to a world of his or her own, one where anything is possible

II. 

Inside the box, you can become anyone, change your name to Stephanie Smith or Mary Ann Johnson. “But they’re so ordinary!” your parents protest when you present your list of alternative names. Maybe that’s the greatest secret of the cardboard box: its capacity to embrace the most ordinary contents.   

You aren’t sure you’re ready for exceptional responsibility: the only child, the only grandchild, the only niece. The box is the size of a child’s playhouse and stands beside the playhouse it formerly contained. When your friend comes to visit, he converts your plastic cottage with window shutters, roll-out awnings, and a painted tulip border into a workshop that resembles his father’s. He says he can hammer all day long. He wants you to pretend to make him a sandwich so he can just keep hammering on the imaginary workbench with the imaginary tool. 

This isn’t going to work for you. In your box, you keep things decidedly non-domestic. You don’t practice vacuuming or dusting, organizing spices or folding laundry fresh from the line. You cut holes for peering through and borrow your father’s binoculars, practice crouching and holding impossibly still in preparation for your future life as a private eye.  

Though it’s true that your whole family wants you to be extraordinary—gifted academically, prodigious on piano, a catalog model for JCPenney—such accomplishments must not come at the expense of being normal. They buy you classic, gender-appropriate toys now immortalized in the Hall of Fame: a baby doll you call Amy and a fashion doll someone else has already called Barbie. 

Every baby doll … serves a special function in cultivating nurturing and parental roles in children—except you never want to mother Amy. She becomes your sister instead, the one you long for but will never have because the contents of your mother’s body have been emptied, too, in ways you don’t completely understand. Let Amy play piano. Let Amy pose for pictures. You prop her in a cardboard corner with your schoolbooks, make her hold your imaginary periscope, test you on your spelling words. 

Barbie, once charged with limiting girls’ potential, went on to pursue many specialized careers, including dentist, paleontologist, and presidential candidate. Even in demanding positions, though, Barbie retained her fashion senseYou are not one of those girls who shave Barbie’s head or remove it altogether. She is never your object of revenge. Instead, you leave her lonely on the basement stairs, beside the boxes that contain her dream house and her glow-in-the-dark canopy bed.  

It’s true that there are other toys in the Hall of Fame you would have much preferred: Hot Wheels, Mr. Potato Head, a shiny red Radio Flyer. But you are content, for the most part, to lie flat on your belly, palms cupping your chin, watching the world and writing about it on a steno pad with a Ticonderoga pencil. Perhaps these are the essential toys of your youth. 

Next door, your friend keeps hammering away with sound effects and pounding motions. He rattles your box. He recounts his plans to build skyscrapers that really scrape the sky. At lunchtime, you call for Barbie to bring each of you a sandwich. 

III. 

I search the National Toy Hall of Fame for my doll, my namesake—Brenda the Nurse—but she’s nowhere in sight. Where could she be? Maybe hard at work behind the scenes, saving the lives of other, more important toys. 

Perhaps I made her up. But I seem to remember her so clearly: she lay flat and cool as a drugged princess in her plastic box, a case gussied up to look like a hospital. She wore a svelte black cape emblazoned with a red cross and a perky white nurse’s cap tilted at a rakish angle on her head. She clutched a cunning black doctor’s bag in her tiny curved fingers, and I believed it held everything she would need in her day: stethoscope, tinted cylinders of pills, packets of Kleenex for her patients. 

When my mother gave her to me—an unexpected gift, not part of a birthday or Hanukkah—I could tell she was pleased to have found something so perfect. Not that I had expressed any desire to be a nurse (my thoughts ran more to stewardess in those days, and I even sent away for a catalog from which one could order one’s very own stewardess cap and sash). But rarely did I find my name among the racks of bicycle license plates or key chains at the drugstore, a deflation my mother had witnessed many times. To twirl the rack and look hopefully at the Bobbies and Bonnies and then to the Bruces, with no Brendas in between, felt almost like an annihilation, as if I didn’t really exist.  

As it turns out, my mother gave me “Brenda Bride,” not Brenda the Nurse (Of course “bride,” back then, was considered a perfectly acceptable, perhaps even better, occupation for young girls to practice.) She also gave me Sally Stewardess, knowing my attraction to their smart uniforms, and one of my friends got Nina the Nurse. Brenda came in a box that looked like a storybook house, the place of her occupation. 

But I prefer to remember her as Brenda the Nurse, a doll with purpose beyond pleasing her man. I’ve never been a bride, after all, and could never be contained in such a cozy house. I want to remember my doppelganger Brenda in her portable hospital, including an attic room where she slept on a cot (why she would live in such austerity, I don’t know). The other rooms would be saved for work: a waiting room, an examination room. I imagined myself in soft-soled shoes, padding quietly down hallways, dispensing tender yet efficient smiles at every doorway, my head nodding demurely at anything a doctor said. And then I would go home to my attic room, where I would fall into my spartan bed, exhausted, and lay the cool metal of the stethoscope against my chest to count out the beats, my rhythm of being alive. 

IV. 

My mother had already decided I would become a doctor when I grew up. She liked the idea of the white coat, the prescription pad, my future heels clicking with feminine authority down the long, clean hospital hallways. Of course, the high salary and the cachet of saving lives could not be underestimated either. 

“And the best way to meet a doctor is to be one yourself!” She winked at me in the rearview mirror.  

I don’t recall having an Elizabeth Blackwell doll, but I had a book that told the story of the first woman physician of the modern era. I liked Elizabeth Blackwell right away, which I suppose was the point of the gift. She taught women about their bodies, and she traveled around the world. She also avoided matrimony, which I found an intriguing idea. On this matter, my mother was conspicuously silent. 

One year, Santa Claus left me a black medicine bag, familiar from movies in which kindly bald doctors made house calls, touched the cheeks of fevered children, then promised their parents that everything would be all right. The trouble was, I didn’t know any doctors in real life. I was rarely sick, and my mother took me only once to Dr. Kumasaka, whose name I repeated over and over like the song it was: ku-ma-sa-ka, ku-ma-sa-kaHe was quiet and serious, with a bright light on his forehead and slender, ghostly hands. When he pricked my finger, he showed me the wild red of my blood. “It is only this color,” he said, “after the air has touched it.” Then, he wrapped the small wound with a Snoopy Band-Aid, and I never saw him again.  

Soon after, I removed the plastic syringes from my own kit, the mysterious bottle of tonic, even the stack of gauze pads and the tiny thermometer set precisely to 98.6. I stocked up instead on the tools of my own future trade—rumpled notebooks, erasable pens, a flashlight, a camera, and a magnifying lens. Nancy Drew was always with me, and Trixie Belden, too. Even the Hardy Boys had a place in my portable archive.  

Can it really be there are no books in the National Toy Hall of Fame? Are Alphabet Blocks and Scrabble the closest its curators came to priming a life for the sustained investigation of words? On Career Day in third grade, I stood in front of the class, opened the medicine bag, and revealed my treasures. “I’m going to be a detective,” I explained, “and I’ll also be writing mystery novels on the side.”  

In the back row, my mother’s face sagged. She must have thought of stakeouts, donuts by the dozen, mussed hair, and bad grooming habits. Of the writing, she said only, “It won’t be worth it unless you write for Hallmark or just like Danielle Steel.” 

V. 

No books in the National Toy Hall of Fame? This must be an oversight; we must write a letter! After all, the right children’s book—The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, say, or Charlotte’s Web—fulfills at least three of the Hall’s own criteria: Icon, Longevity, Discovery. Are we ever more at play than when we crouch down inside a book? Isn’t a book just as playful (full of play), and just as ready to be filled with a child’s body, as Cardboard Box? Watch a child reading: she is no longer present in the ordinary, too-serious world. 

I see The Game of Life occupies a place in this hallowed hall (though, now, my regard for this canonical display has diminished just a tad). One of the best-selling games of all time, Life has also been translated into at least 20 languages. It was one of the first “3-D” board games, with its upright, movable pieces and its integrated spinner. The television commercial promised that You will learn about life when you play The Game of Life! Even Art Linkletter said so. 

We used to drag this battered box onto the kitchen table, fold out the game board, choose our mode of transportation: for me, a practical roadster with slots ready for the tiny, upright plastic driver, spouse, and kids. Pink for girls, blue for boys. You had many choices to make in The Game of Life. Business or College? Children? How Many? Insurance? Do you take risks or follow the winding path on a predictable trajectory? 

The spinner spins, lands where it may. I move my jalopy from one square to the next, fill it with people who can face only one direction. I buy no insurance. At some point, the Game of Life goes on and on, becomes tedious, and you want to skip out, go back to your room with a book. A Wrinkle in Time, say, or Stranger in a Strange Land. Yes, that’s it. You take this book with you wherever you go, even in the car, with Mom and Dad sitting immoveable in their appointed slots, staring straight ahead into their future.  

VI.  

We had The Game of Life, but we never played it, not even once. I have my hunch as to why. My father always said, “Too many choices can be dangerous. That’s why God left us a guidebook—so we wouldn’t presume to decide.”  

Free will leads to sin, remember? Choice is just temptation in disguise. 

I was once a little pink girl in lacy socks, then a teenaged Eve in appropriate attire—but look how badly she bungled that business in the Garden. Dragged Adam into it, too. And everyone knew you couldn’t leave me alone with a box of Jujyfruits, not even for a minute. Imagine the mess I’d make if the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil were to sprout beneath my bedroom window. 

You’re going to collegeYou’re getting marriedYou’re having two children, a boy and a girlI never heard an or. I never spun for it, never cast a die, never even played a proxy. No one spoke the language of maybe where I came from. 

My parents promised to help me with my down payment, though. “You’ll live right here in our neighborhood,” my father said. “That way, your mother can help you with the children.” 

We played other games instead, some since inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame—games that didn’t threaten to undermine the patriarchy or contradict God’s word. Marbles, for instance. My father brought me a wooden box. The lid didn’t lift but slid slowly, intensifying the suspense. Inside, I found dozens of small, hard balls of colored glass. Hundreds, perhaps. They looked brand new, and I soon learned that this was because he had polished them religiously for years in preparation for the day he would pass the box on to me. 

“Someday,” my father declared, arranging a circle of string on the living room rug, “you will pass these marbles to your own daughter, your own son.” For him, I was both in one. 

I must have been pretty young then, still wearing those lacy socks and something pink jutting off my head. “But what if I don’t have any children?” I asked. Everyone knew about them, after all—the disgusting messes they made, the relentless questions they raised. I was an expert on everything wrong with children. 

“Don’t you ever—” he said it louder than he meant, and harsher, too—“say that again.” 

VII. 

Have you lost your marbles?! my brother would say to me, gleefully, the “are” sound of marbles elongated so the word itself seemed marbled, clicking and clacking through his sinuses. Always followed by a snort, then his hand reaching in to tickle my ribs. Have you, he said, tickling harder, lost your marrrrrrbles? Until I shrieked in a puzzling combination of pleasure and pain. I didn’t really understand; I had no marbles to begin with. Well, I had one marble: an agate, milky blue swirled with white. I kept it in a little plastic box, along with a feathered barrette, a tiny key to a lost diary, and a mood ring.  

Do you remember mood rings? That round oval of mysterious, prophetic stone nestled in a cheap tin setting? The stone contained liquid crystal that changed color depending on the wearer’s skin temperature, this fluctuation supposedly correlating to the true level of one’s happiness. Originally, jewelers crafted the settings of real silver or gold, and the rings sold for hundreds of dollars in upscale stores like Bonwit Teller. But the demand for a piece of jewelry that exposes your inner self must not have escalated among the upper classes; the market trended steadily downward to the drugstore variety of consumer—mainly children, who idly fingered impulse buys at the checkout counter or gazed at trinkets jumbled behind the domed glass of a vending machine.  

And of course, the lowly mood ring has not made it into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Why would it? Can we even classify it as a toy?  

Icon: þ (Most of us who came of age in the ’70s remember mood rings or some variant of them. With their gaudy settings and large stones, they seem emblematic of that era’s flamboyance.) 

Longevity: þ (While mood rings may have been a fad, you can still find mood rings for sale online: some very fancy bands or antiques on Etsy.) 

Discovery: þ (One could discover quite a bit about one’s self from a mood ring. Maybe not your mood—it measured only skin temperature after all—but your need for this outward manifestation of the self’s inner mechanisms, your desire for a certain color to emerge and claim you.) 

Innovation: þ (Had any other toy ever plumbed the inner self? Perhaps Monopoly or Sorry! reveals the interior to the exterior world, but not quite so directly or intentionally.) 

I wore the mood ring on my left ring finger, like a wedding band or an engagement ring. I liked the heavy feel of it against my knuckle, the way the stone took up more room than it should have, and I glanced at it often to determine what I might be feeling (how else could I know?). Each ring came with a color chart that correlated every color with an emotion: the blood red of Nervous, the burnt umber of Harassed, the yellow of Mixed Emotions. As children, we have no words to describe what bubbles within us; our bodies must do it for us. The mood ring makes no sound. You might forget you have it on, go through your day unaware of its broadcasts. My mood ring often stayed black—did I feel nothing? Even now I have cold hands—but sometimes it strayed into a dirty gold or the surprise of teal. Did I ever get Happy or Lucky? How about the green light of Romantic? Perhaps only when I ran. 

VIII. 

Oh, yes, I remember mood rings, but only the cheapest kind! Rings that left another ring beneath them, green and hard to scrub clean in the bathroom sink. This was the epilogue to the ’80s: girls with moussed bangs, boys with cowlicks turned suddenly cool. Everyone had a hair pick in a purse or pocket.  

My mood ring came from the Southgate Roller Rink: a stray quarter slipped into the silver slot and then a plastic egg that slid through the polished chute, bearing one of four kinds of treasure. People were just beginning to pair off. At least three times a night was a Couples’ Skate, and that’s how you knew who the friends were, who the morethanfriends

Inexplicably, I had a steady boyfriend for all of fourth grade and half of fifth. Like everyone else, we wanted to be older. Like everyone else, we didn’t know how. The girls in my class thought Lee was too pretty and normal for me, destined for titles like Team Captain and Homecoming King. They weren’t wrong. But back then, we wore matching friendship bracelets we wove ourselves, and when he asked me to slow-skate, I put my sweaty palm inside his sweaty palm, the way our parents set their cars on cruise control. It was all so easy and automatic, lacing our fingers and swaying under the soft lights to something like Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes.” 

All the while, though, the ring pinched between my knuckles, tighter and tighter, until it drew blood. The color had always been one denoting Romantic, Happy, or Lucky. But later, when Lee pressed me against the wall by the snack bar, the way all the pretty boys pressed all the normal girls, I got flustered and couldn’t breathe. A stranger flashed her inhaler at me, but I didn’t have asthma or even allergies. When I looked down at the ring, it had turned yellow, unmistakably: the color of Mixed Emotions. Not long, then, before I threw that ring away.  

Roller skates belong in the National Toy Hall of Fame, so I’m not surprised to find them there. Ditto skateboards, Big Wheels, and bicycles. Until we could drive, these were the best ways we had of getting around. But what about staying put or drawing closer, learning to share an intimate space? I wanted to talk to people all day long, but I was growing more and more afraid to touch them. Even casual contact—passing a pencil or hovering too close in a line—might be misconstrued. And what of the girl in the locker room, from the high school swim team, who threw her wet hair so hard it whipped the air between us: “What are you, a lesbian or something?” I never went back to that pool. 

The mood ring chart makes me think of Twister, which was inducted into the Hall of Fame just last year. A vote will decide if it qualifies as a truly iconic toy. First introduced in 1966 by Milton Bradley, Twister was not an instant hit. Then, someone in PR made a last-ditch pitch to The Tonight Show. After Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor contorted themselves to laughter and rousing cheers, the game sold out everywhere. No store could keep it in stock.  

Maybe this is what all toys do in their way: grant the players some essential kind of permission. What if I unfolded the slippery white mat on the dorm room floor and waved to my neighbors; if the whole east wing of Harstad Hall—girls in slippery white socks and leggings and messy buns without bangs—were suddenly stretching beyond their reach; if girls were falling all over each other, roaring with laughter, and I was one of them? What if no one was worried for once about where she would land?  

About the Author

Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

Brenda Miller is the author of five essay collections, most recently An Earlier Life (Ovenbird Books, 2016). She also coauthored Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, and The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.

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