© 2024 KUAF
NPR Affiliate since 1985
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Affected by May 26 tornadoes? Find relief resources here.

Rogers Historical Museum hosts 'Toys Well Played'

A rocking horse sits in a replica child's playroom created by museum employees.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
A rocking horse sits in a replica child's playroom created by museum employees.

Last month, “BarbieMania” hit America hard.

Throughout summer, thousands of fans anxiously awaited Greta Gerwig’s newest flick. Meanwhile, Rogers Historical Museumcollections manager Jennifer Kick was dusting off her own toy chest.

The museum opened its newest exhibit, “Toys Well Played,” on July 22. It will remain open until January. The exhibit is housed in the special collections’ gallery.

Toys Well Played looks like a child’s playroom. Dozens of toys sit behind glass barriers, staring back at museum visitors. Their manufacturing dates range from the 1890s to the early aughts.

A "Potato Head Doll" and other toys sit behind glass barriers.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
A "Potato Head Doll" and other toys sit behind glass barriers.

The playthings vary in age, size, shape and rarity, yet they all share one common characteristic: Their original owners were children from the NWA Area who donated their old toys to the museum.

Kick said the museum rarely has to request items because the community donates so many from their homes or antique stores. Occasionally, the Rogers museum will receive items on loan from other museums for larger exhibits, but “Toys Well Played” is entirely made up of toys that call Rogers Historical Museum their home.

“We try to keep it to just ours,” Kick said. “If we were, we kind of thought about maybe finding a Barbie to loan, but we decided this was a good opportunity to advertise the donation of those sorts of toys.”

A flashy, pink wanted sign hangs on a wall in the small gallery. The poster outlines the museum’s need for a Barbie doll. Kick said they are lacking the most popular beauty doll. She did, however, come across another small blondie that fits the bill.

A wanted sign for Barbie hangs on the wall.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
A wanted sign for Barbie hangs on the wall.

“We don't have a Barbie in our collection,” Kick said. “Barbie came out in 1959, and she was an immediate hit. There was no other doll like her on the market, and she was an immediate hit. So every other toy company in the world wanted to get in on this. That's a Mitzi doll.”

Mitzi is what toy experts call a Barbie clone. Mitzi was made for one year in 1961, two years after Mattel released Barbara Millicent Roberts, also known as Barbie. After the immediate success of Barbie, numerous toy companies attempted to hitch their wagon to her success and released their own beauty dolls. Obviously, the rest is history.

No one ever beat Barbie
Jennifer Kick

"No one ever beat Barbie,” Kick said. “So we don't have a Barbie doll. We actually opened to the community like, ‘Hey, if you have a Barbie doll you don't want and would like to donate it, we would love to have one for our collection.’”

“So was Mitzi hard to find?”

“I don't think so,” Kick said. “It's just– we don't even have to go out. This was just given to us a few years ago. Someone was clearing out all their old childhood stuff, and they went here and you can have this I think it's a Barbie. We looked into it and were like, this actually isn't– it's a knockoff.”

Though the museum is still searching for Barbie, plenty of other rare and unique toys fill the space. For example, a Cabbage Patch doll from the ’80s sits in its original packaging alongside a Beanie Baby and a Tickle-Me-Elmo. Museum educator Ashley Sayer walks over to her favorite part of the exhibit.

“My favorite is over here, in this case, with the more current toys,” Sayer said. “My favorite is this cabbage patch doll. So, to kind of go off of hers– the reason this one is my favorite. I had a Cabbage Patch Doll when I was a kid, and it was a little different than this one. But it reminds me of that, and that was like my favorite doll when I was a kid. I took it everywhere with me. So, it just reminds me of my cabbage patch doll.”

“What can you tell me about your cabbage patch doll?”

“So mine, instead of being cloth like most Cabbage Patch dolls, mine was actually plastic, and it came with a bathing suit, and if you left it out in the sun, it tanned, and her name was Dolores. So all Cabbage Patch dolls come with a name and a birth certificate. So mine was Dolores, and my mom would make clothes for her and had a little bed for her and everything.”

Kick said she initially had trouble deciding what to display from their toy collection and how to display the items they selected. The farther back in history one goes, the less defined toys become.

“What's the oldest toy y’all have here?”

“It's gonna be this teeny little porcelain doll here,” Kick said. “So, I don't know the exact age, but like, they were popular from 1850 all the way to 1920. So I think ours is about 1870 to 1880. So, that's the oldest thing we have out here.”

The roughly 2-inch porcelain doll is called Frozen Charlotte. The small doll seems fragile and possibly too delicate for a child’s plaything.

Frozen Charlotte sits at Toys Well Played.
Jack Travis
/
kuaf
Frozen Charlotte sits at Toys Well Played.

“If I were to look at that, I wouldn't consider it to be a toy– I might consider it like a figure. How do you draw the line on what's a toy and what's like a collectible or something like that?”

“A lot of people have already done that for us,” Kick said. “In terms of people have written all these books about toys and toy collecting. So you go in there, you look it up, and someone's already done an entire history of Frozen Charlottes and why they were toys.”

Small porcelain figures, like Frozen Charlotte, were inexpensive and extremely common. So, if a kid broke it while playing, they could easily buy another for a penny.

Kick said this made her question: What makes a toy? She found another question to be a suitable answer:

What did kids play with? That's a toy.
Jennifer Kick

“What did kids play with? That's a toy,” Kick said. “Like I mentioned somewhere, some of the earliest toys are just sticks and rocks. That's a toy because kids play with them. I mean, I don't have any because it'd be hard to prove that it was a toy that someone played with.

“But there have been people for decades that have done all of this in-depth object research, and there are whole books written about toys and toy history. I just play off of that. It's really not as much work for me. I let people do the research for me."

Kick said this loose understanding of what makes a toy made writing for the exhibit difficult. However, extent research has been done on the psychology of play and what toys teach children.

“It's different from kid to kid,” Kick said. “It just became very hard for me to talk about. So we decided that was too much for this exhibit, and we just kind of focused on the light history. But there's a lot of fascinating information about what's a toy what, what is this child learning from (toys). They really determine themselves what they're learning from it as much as parents and elders try to shape how children learn from certain toys. It's really up to the kid– they're going to do what they want, despite our influence.”

Kick said though the exhibit has been a staff favorite, the Toys Well Played can’t stay out forever. The harsh lighting and air of the gallery can potentially harm the fragile toys.

“So they'll go back in their boxes," Kick said. "They’ll be stored at the appropriate temperature and low light levels to help them be preserved. And in the future, I'm sure they will fit into another topic as well or could be years down the line; we just do toys again because not everyone gets a chance to come here and visit at the time the exhibit’s out.”

The collection will remain open to the public until Jan. 13, but then it’s back in the box for the toys.

Stay Connected
Jack Travis is a reporter for <i>Ozarks at Large</i>.<br/>
Related Content