The exhibit includes more than a century of playthings; think yesteryear’s toy catalogs sprung to life.
But Toytopia is more than a nostalgic trip down memory lane. According to museum director Jennifer Kilmer, since the exhibit opened in mid-February, the toys are spurring intergenerational conversations. Children arrive hand-in-hand with grandparents and leave knowing a little more about Grandma or Grandpa’s life.
Call it a spoonful-of-sugar approach to teaching history.
The exhibit begins with a recreation of an early-1900s nursery. A large Victorian dollhouse takes up much of the floor; one of the first board games sits beside it.
The room captures a time when toys were no longer just for wealthy children. Industrialization allowed for mass production, and strict child labor laws finally gave kids more time and opportunity to play.
The toys on display tell the story of America and the future children could expect. Toy trains, cars, planes and rocket ships followed American innovations and were largely created with boys in mind.
Dolls, aprons, Easy-Bake ovens and other miniature domestic items were marketed to females. Little girls in well-to-do households received handmade doll furniture and porcelain tea sets.
Children were expected to imitate the world of grown-ups and carry out the norms that surrounded them. Boys went to the moon. Girls stayed home and poured tea.
Looking at toys from America’s different eras invokes the spirit of the time when they were made, and that makes us wonder about today’s kids.
Certainly the amount of toys the average kid owns reflects a globalized market wherein goods come cheap, mass marketing is tied to corporate franchises and consumerism runs amok.
But toys can also be forward thinking. There’s now a growing movement to remove the clearly demarcated gender aisles in toy stores. No more Barbie pink exclusively for girls, nor science kits marketed just to boys.
For generations, toy manufacturers have imposed gender stereotypes on children; that may soon stop.
Luckily, there’s nothing preachy about Toytopia. The hands-on experience lets you draw your own conclusions.
But toys are not all child’s play. Their purpose was, and still is, to educate. From alphabet blocks created in 1879 to Lincoln Logs created by John Lloyd Wright, son of the famed architect, toys have been designed to fortify skills needed later in life.
And let’s face it, when it comes to learning the virtues of gracious winning, or humbly accepting defeat and finessing familial reconciliation, there’s no better teacher than the Game of Life.
Toys are what we use to cast our fears and worries aside, if only for a little while, and remember the pure joy of being a kid.
In the end, Toytopia is a reminder that the best toys aren’t powered by batteries or computer chips but by the imagination. If you don’t believe us, just ask Mr. or Mrs. Potato Head. They’ll be at The Washington State History Museum for 13 more weeks.
What: New hands-on exhibit lets children and adults explore the toys, games and amusements of their childhoods (through June 10).
Where: Washington State History Museum, 1911 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesday-Sunday, and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. every third Thursday.
Tickets: Adults $14; seniors, students, military $11; Children free.
Information: 253-272-3500, washingtonhistory.org