“All Aboard!” for Fun with Trains

“All Aboard!” for Fun with Trains

Growing up in Pennsylvania, my parents frequently looked for family excursions within a few hours’ drive from our home near Pittsburgh. Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, became a frequent destination for the Novakovics, thanks in part to my younger brothers. Both Bobby and Billy loved reading the Thomas the Tank Engine series by Reverend W. Awdry; watching the PBS show Shining Time Station; and playing with metal Thomas & Friends train cars (which feel worse to step on than Lego bricks, FYI).Julia and Bobby Novakovic at the Red Caboose Motel, 1993, with Red Caboose Lodge souvenir booklet, n.d. Courtesy of Bill Novakovic. Among Lancaster’s attractions is the town of Strasburg, home to the Strasburg Railroad; the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania; and the National Toy Train Museum. For total railroad immersion, we stayed at the Red Caboose Motel, a compound of 38 retired cabooses turned into tourist lodging. (I believe we opted for the “Baggage Car” floor plan, which housed two sets of bunk beds.) Daytime activities included the Strasburg Railroad’s scenic 45-minute round-trip train ride through the countryside, climbing in and around old trains at the museums, and eating our weight in delicious shoo-fly pie from an Amish farm market. My dad kept a souvenir cassette tape of railroad-themed songs in his pick-up truck for ages, and I can still remember all the words to “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe.”

Although I haven’t been back to Strasburg in more than a decade, I’m surrounded by trains here at The Strong. The Strong Express Train on the museum’s first floor is a mini-locomotive ride for children and their accompanying adults. (Don’t forget to wave at your family and friends when your train car circles past the station!) In the museum’s Build, Drive, Go exhibit, visitors can peruse cast-iron, steel, plastic, electric, and even paper toy trains. (During World War II, the U.S. War Production Board prohibited the manufacture of toys using critical war effort materials, such as steel or iron. As a result, the Lionel Corporation ceased its standard metal toy train production and instead fabricated items for the Allied troops. Lionel did, however, print the Wartime Freight Train on heavy paper stock for families to assemble and play with at home.) There are also many train-themed games—both traditional and electronic—within the museum’s collections.

Out of this World: A Brief History of the Yo-Yo

Out of this World: A Brief History of the Yo-Yo

I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect….

When I Was a Kid: Adult Memories of Play

When I Was a Kid: Adult Memories of Play

One of the great pleasures of working at The Strong is that every exhibit features a time portal back to childhood, most of which hold innumerable portals. No sooner does a visitor exclaim, “Oh! I had one of those when I was a kid!,” at the sight of Teddy Ruxpin before she is confronted by…

Spin Master: Putting Their Own “Spin” on Toys since 1994

Spin Master: Putting Their Own “Spin” on Toys since 1994

Think about some of the “must-have” toys you’ve seen (or even procured) over the last few years. How about the playful robotic dog Zoomer? Or the small, colorful, hooked building balls called Bunchems? Or the great craze of 2016, Hatchimals (described by some as a cross between a Furby and a Tamagotchi)? These massively popular…

Oh Brother! Oh Sister!

Oh Brother! Oh Sister!

Mothers get their day in May. Fathers are feted in June. And what about sisters and brothers? Their turn comes on April 10—Siblings Day. Siblings Day hasn’t earned recognition as a federal holiday (yet), but since 1998, governors have proclaimed Siblings Day in 49 states. From experience and observation, I know that sibling relationships can…

Postwar Plastic Playthings: Affordability, Resources and Military Surplus

Postwar Plastic Playthings: Affordability, Resources and Military Surplus

I first became interested in the increase of plastic in children’s toys through my own daughter’s toys, especially since my undergrad degree was in Environment and Health, with a fourth year focus on Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) in baby bottles. Throughout my Masters studies, I focused on the central question of why we…

Playing with Puppies

Playing with Puppies

We have all heard the saying that a dog is man’s (and woman’s too) best friend. We love dogs so much that they even have their own special day—National Puppy Day! Canine companionship has been around for eons and extends from pets to working dogs. Whether they are snuggle buddies, sled pullers, or law enforcement…

Play for All Seasons

Play for All Seasons

I receive a lot of strange looks whenever I tell people that I look forward to the end of summer. Perhaps your face has morphed into such an expression after reading that. But there is logic behind my claim. It seems to me that the opportunity for play during the autumn and winter months is…

Rolling Out the First Driving Game

Rolling Out the First Driving Game

I’ve admired The Strong’s vintage Drive-Mobile arcade game since the first time I stood in front of it with Martin Reinhardt, the museum’s arcade game conservation technician. It was exciting to see how the first arcade driving game—a popular and enduring genre—actually worked. Martin opened the back of the game for me and demonstrated the…

“True Hollywood” Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love

"True Hollywood” Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love

When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with the television program E! True Hollywood Story. Each week, I took a salacious rollercoaster ride through the ups and downs of a celebrity’s life. Right before each commercial break, the narrator assured me that either the star was about to be saved from his downward spiral…