From blocks to logs to connecting gears, construction toys are an unequivocal childhood stepping stone. Made from metal, wood, plastic, composite, and even paper, the best among them have transcended time for one reason: They work. That’s according to Sarah Leavitt, curator at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., whose job includes overseeing the institution's collection of more than 2,000 architectural toys.
In 2006, the museum acquired a stock of 2,252 architectural toys from an amateur toy collector in Illinois. Currently, 38 of them are displayed in the museum's Play Work Build exhibition. In total, the collection contains more than 260,000 bits and parts, which have been inventoried and are now in the process of being cataloged by hand.
Earlier this month, ARCHITECT was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the closed-off archive. Though we couldn't play with the toys, we were guided by Leavitt and museum registrar Nancy Bateman through a sampling of artifacts that have helped define the American childhood experience for more than a century.
Kindergarten Gift No. 5, Milton Bradley
Manufactured by Milton Bradley for the American market in the late 1800s, this set of the German Froebel Blocks is one of a series of "gifts," or learning milestones, Leavitt says, related to understanding shapes and the basic properties of physics. It's no secret now that kids learn through play, she says, "and that was certainly very explicit starting in the late 19th century and moving forward." Building-focused toys like these and others, such as alphabet blocks, represent a period during which childhood was seen anew as a time for supervised development.
Richter's Anchor Blocks, The Suburban Box 206, F. Ad. Richter & Co.
Made from a stone-like composite, this set of stacking masonry units dates from the early 20th century and was manufactured by a U.S. derivative of the German Richter's Anchor Blocks. Though the toy was wildly popular, demand for it dropped at the onset of World War I due to material rationing, which nearly ended the German company. In 1995, a veritable Richter fan club in Germany was able to help restore the company as Anker Steinbaukasten. Today, the classic blocks remain novelties for their simplicity in form and function.
Bilt EZ The Boy Builder Set D, Architectural Outfit
This box of small metal pieces with sharp ends may prohibit freewheeling imaginative play, Leavitt says, instead requiring its user to carefully assemble a single structure. Unlike the wood and composite predecessors, Bilt EZ's all-metal parts represent the evolution of building materials and resources, both on the jobsite and in the playroom. "Materials not only change over time, but become cheaper," Leavitt says. "That's an important part of the story of toy manufacture. ... There was metal before but it's more precious and you wouldn't necessarily give it to kids or make toys out of it. As it gets cheaper to manufacture and distribute, that changes."
Lincoln Logs, Design No. 100, Pioneer Cabin Set No. 1A
Ripe with nostalgia and the spirit of the frontier, Lincoln Logs are a scaled representation in wood—and, for a time, in plastic—of American Expectionalism invented by Frank Lloyd Wright's son, John, in 1916. "It's an interesting idea ... to think about what nostalgia for the frontier meant in the 1920s as opposed to what it means to us [nearly] 100 years later," Leavitt says. This set dates from the 1920s.
DeLuxe Tinker Toy, The Toy Tinkers
Fit with hinges, spools, and rods, Tinker Toys let users' imaginations run wild. Offered in wood and plastic, the various components allowed young builders to incorporate motion, such as a spinning windmill or a rolling vehicle, into their constructions. "You can see a lot of creativity in the manufacture," Leavitt says. "That's another reason why there are so many different kinds of [architectural building] toys. Not every toy is going to stick." Tinker Toys, she notes, did.
Lego No. 205, Samsonite
Perhaps the most timeless of construction toys, the plastic Lego brick has seen little change. The toy sets, however, have expanded manifold to include new sizes, dimensions, and prefabricated parts. Additionally, the Lego brand has added gender-specific lines, franchised versions, films, and video games. This set of interlocking blocks dates from 1966.
With parts that click and snap and stack, building toys have a history of endless configurations. As with Lincoln Logs, many exemplify the social and economic values of the era in which they were introduced, reinterpreted as the toys are reproduced for subsequent generations. Leavitt and Bateman presented a Plasticville set (not shown) that dates from the 1950s and in its name and function as a scaled model town for use with railroad sets exemplifies the changes in the space and shape of communities underway in the mid-20th century. "It's an interested study in itself to go back and see how that idea of what makes a town changes over time—or doesn't," Leavitt says.
Though a number of the building toys in this collection show wear, most are hardly outdated in their use (save for the packaging and occasional gendered marketing). As a result, it's apparent that the brands that have capitalized on the childhood notion of building up and breaking down have created legacies for generations to come.