Toys, Games, and Hobbies in North America


By Sharon Scott
2007 Greenwood Publishing Group



The unofficial history of North America can be understood by surveying the toys, games, and hobbies enjoyed by its people.  In the moments outside of work or family obligation, individuals are free to indulge themselves.  With no consequence beyond the immediate play and no responsibility other than to win, games allow people to behave differently than they might in real life.  Cautious people can act surprisingly reckless in games.  Refined people may participate in the most deplorable sports.  From bad form to bad etiquette, outlandish behavior is forgiven or forgotten with the conclusion of the play.  For both children and adults in North America, playtime allows people to explore different activities, escape difficult realities, and envision new possibilities.

Classified ads across the continent prove that in addition to age, sex, and height, pastime activities are among the essential features that both Canadians and Americans want to know about potential mates. The way an individual entertains him or herself during the moments outside of work is considered an accurate indicator of his or her deeper personality.  Healthy people play sports, for instance, inquisitive people read, and sensitive people take strolls in the park.

Just as a person's extracurricular interests may reflect one’s personality, pastime activities can also reflect the personality of a country.  Fads capture the ingenuity and like-mindedness of a society.  Playthings that endure reveal the heart of a people.  North America was discovered by explorers, settled by pioneers, and conquered by capitalists. North America is built upon immigration and invention.  So are its toys.

The North American universe of toys, games, and activities is virtually infinite.  A constant and unlimited supply of playthings includes everything from ancient marbles to space age robots.  Games with native roots such as King of the Hill and Pick-up Sitcks are played alongside international imports such as Mah Jong and Nintendo.  Among the millions of hobbies cultivated in North America are stamp collecting, competitive eating, and space tourism.  The diversity of pastimes and playthings enjoyed by the inhabitants of the New World attests to the economic prosperity and social freedom that has developed across the continent.

Despite individual differences, North Americans share a collective vocabulary of play.  From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, new trends are promoted by talkative children and borderless media.  A single item can easily take the entire continent by storm.  Teddy Bears, Hula Hoops, and Suduko are among phenomena of the Twentieth Century that have hit Toronto and New York at virtually the same time.  These fads attest to the ingenuity and comradery that lies at the heart of North American society.

Like good sisters, the United States and Canada have shared their toys since birth. An open border, a shared language, and a legacy of free trade agreements, have allowed the development of a virtually borderless toy industry in North America in the 20th Century.  Among the citizens of the continent, little distinction is made between Canadian and American toys.  Silly Putty, Trivial Pursuit, Superman and many other playthings that seem classically American are truly products of Canadian ingenuity.  In North America, regional differences such as climate and economy prove more important than national boundaries in the development of pastimes and playthings.

In both countries, toys are considered instruments for building one’s personality.  They encourage the imagination and liberate it from the limitations of the real world. Toys direct thought and introduce new ideas. From guns to sexy dolls, there is virtually nothing American parents won’t give their children as a toy.  Canadian parents are seen as more responsible in selecting toys that will benefit the intellectual growth of the child. 

At the beginning of the century, toys in North America were precious, rare, and handmade.  They were given a to families and sold in general stores.  As the economy grew, so did the number of toys and toyshops.  Inventions such as plastic and the assembly line eventually made domestic toys more accessible than European imports. After pushing smaller shops out of business, Wal-Mart and Toys R Us have become the largest toy retailers on the continent.  These mega-shops carry the products of toy manufacturing giants such as Matel and Hasbro.

In North America, boy's toys are generally active and career oriented while girl's toys have an overwhelmingly domestic appeal.  Although girls are not encouraged to use boy's toys, such as army men or footballs, they are not punished for such play.  Boys, on the other hand, are usually forbidden to play with girl’s toys.  Barbies and baby dolls are strictly off limits.

Once children enter school playtime becomes structured and work becomes introduced as the most important part of the day.   Suddenly play is not free.  It is something a child must work to achieve.  It is a prize for good behavior a reward for work well done.

Children are gradually weened away from imaginative play and into games of skill and strategy.  As children mature they are provided with rules to follow and given goals to attain during their play.  The concept of winning is introduced at an early age and even in their games North American children are expected to excel. 

As children grow older playtime is increasingly filled with competitive games.  Parents involve their children a variety of competitive activities from organized sports to beauty contests.   During these youthful contests parents tell their children,  “it is not important if you win or loose, but is it how you play the game.”  Regardless of this positive banter, the importance of winning is demonstrated by the poor behavior of certain parents when their child loses. 

Imagniative play is the property of children.  Adults in English-speaking North America are forbidden from revisiting the fantastic worlds they knew as a child.  Pretending to be different people in impossible situations is an activity preserved for lunatics, prostitutes, and actors.   Literature, cinema, and television are popular subsitutues for these sort of role-playing games.   Instead of becoming the heroic characters of their own playful fantasy, adults become spectators to the play of others.  The experience of becoming an astronaut or an Aztec warrior is still possible to adults but only through the observance of professional actors who are paid to play.

Games in North America are rarely limited to a single demographic group. With the exception of certain sports, men and women of all races, religions, and economic backgrounds regularly compete with and against one another. From the schoolyard to the casino, games are usually considered most fun when both sexes participate.

In North America there are games for memorization, games for cognition, games for survival, and games for financial gain.  While ancient games such as Checkers, Chess, and Go! continued to be played frequently in both the United States and Canada, personal computers, Playstations, and cell phones have made high-tech gaming a standard feature in most North American homes.   

In contrast to the various items found in the American marketplace, many toy, game and hobby traditions have been successfully passed down through the generations. Most American children still spend a great deal of time playing outdoors, scratching out chalk outlined Hopscotch grids onto asphalt, running around feverishly in games of freeze tag and dodge ball.  Marco Polo, Hide n’ Seek, Punch Bug, and Spin the Bottle are games North Americans instinctively know.  

The concept of being #1 is deeply ingrained in the psyche of the United States where players will do just about anything to win.  Canadians, however, seem much more interested in a good honest game.  The primary national pastimes of Canada are the hockey and lacrosse.  Although each of these sports can be down right vicious compared to most pastimes in the United States, these team sports are dependant on cooperation as well as competition. Baseball, shopping, and watching TV all vie for the title of America’s Pastime but none has united her citizens in a way that hockey has the Canadians.

In their spare time individuals across North America enjoy activities that involve automobiles, athletics, arts, pets, outdoor activity, music, cuisine, and technology.  Hobbyists generally do not have Olympic aspirations, nor do they expect to see their artwork hanging inside the Smithsonian.  Instead, they strive towards sense of individual accomplishment that arises from the fulfillment of personal goals.  Still, the seriousness with which people approach their hobbies is exhibited by millions of dollars spent annually on private lessons and pastime equipment. 

Appealing to the competitive spirit of the Americas, many hobbies involve some sort of contest.  Collectors compete for the most extensive or the most valuable collection.  Gamers race for the highest score.  The competition is usually considered friendly and a sense of good sportsmanship is expected –if not always exhibited—within the playing field.

As the Internet and the airplane continue to make the world smaller, more and more international toys, games, and pastimes introduce themselves to the North American vocabulary.  Suduko, Feng Shui, and Pilates are just a few examples of recently imported pastimes that have become wildly successful in Canada and the United States.

For centuries, ideas and activities have migrated to North America from other parts of the world.  Marbles and Checkers have roots in ancient Greece.  Hackey Sac was called Jian Zi when it was played in ancient China. Parcheesi is based on the game Ludo that has been played in India since 4 A.D.  Tiddlywinks is the name of an unlicensed pub in England where the game of the same name was invented.  Toys, games, and pastimes have arrived in America by foot, by boat, and by airplane from nearly every corner of the globe.  Like the people who carried them in their pockets and suitcases to the New World, many of these imported playthings have adapted to suit the melting pot culture of North America.

While many pastimes and playthings have immigrated to the Americas, many are indigenous to the land.  Shrinky Dinks, Sea Monkeys, and Mr. Potato Head are characteristically North American.  It would be impossible to imagine the Big Wheel or Nerf Football coming from any other place on the globe.  Intersecting cultures, competing technologies, and an undying belief in the New World have made the United States and Canada fertile ground for oddly progressive playthings.



Forging a society out of the wilderness required the constant effort of all settlers. Children worked along with their parents to plant, build, and create a new civilization.  The continent was unified by its will to work and need to survive.  Activities such as gardening, sewing, and home improvement were methods of survival that demanded constant attention.  Children had spinning tops, kites, dolls and other toys.  Certain games such as hoops or horseshoes were played freely.  Puritan morals did not prohibit play but it was expected that adults spend most of their waking hours productively.  In many communities it was sinful to play with toys on Sunday with the exception of those that taught religious lessons.  Gaming, especially gambling, was considered immoral and idleness was often punishable by law.  Cards and dice were not tolerated by the Puritan colonists nor was any sort of acting.  In Jamestown, bowling was forbidden and the trespasser of this law could be sentenced to the galley. [i]

Archery, wrestling, and foot races were pastimes the colonists and the native populations had in common. The indigenous Americans introduced the settlers to string games like Cat’s Cradle and children’s toys such as the Pickup Sticks.  Requiring little or no equipment, native games traveled lightly across geography and generations.   Many games played by contemporary American children such as Hide and Seek, Blind man’s Bluff, and King of the Hill are descended from the traditions of Indigenous America.

As Pioneers expanded into the lawless West, distance from Puritan values allowed gaming to prosper.  Frontier children learned to make dolls out of cornhusks and adults made wooden puppet toys to dance around campfires.  Once the card game Poker was developed, gaming parlors were not only legal, they were the center of society. 

By the mid-19th Century an affluent class flourished on the Eastern shore of America.  Anxious to prove a European sophistication, wealthy Americans imported fashionable games from the Continent.  German tin toys dominated the toy market.  Exquisite porcelain dolls, dollhouses, toy carriages and rocking horses were fashionable accessories for the Victorian home.  At the end of the day, family and friends gathered to play indoor games.  Parlor games were both intellectual and fun.  They included acting games, treasure hunts, and history quizzes. The introduction of chromolithography in the 1870’s ignited an explosion of colorful board games and New England publishers Milton Bradly and George Parker quickly became household names.

State Fairs, midway carnivals, and amusement parks became important features upon the social landscape of the continent.  These community-building events broke the routine of work and offered rides, shooting games, and theatrical shows to citizens of all financial situations.   Gypsy fortune-tellers, both real and mechanical, became favorite items at the midway fair.  Famous magicians such as Houdini and mediums like Cora Scott would travel across the country astonishing audiences with their supernatural powers. Nineteenth century Spiritualism birthed a fascination in magic and the occult that crept into American drawing rooms.  Séances and spirit rapping became some of the more bizarre games incorporated into evening parlor activates.

Planchettes, small platforms holding a writing utensil, were often used in parlor séances to transcribe messages and pictures from the sprit world.  According to mythology, it was Maryland cabinet and coffin maker E.C. Reiche who removed the pencil from the planchette and placed a board underneath it.  On the surface of the board he etched the letters of the alphabet, numbers one through ten, and the words “yes”, “no”, and “goodbye.”   Reiche claimed the name Ouija had been spelled out to him while using the instrument.  He speculated incorrectly that the name mean “good luck” in Egyptian.

The “Talking Board” was patented on February 10, 1891 by Reiche’s business minded friend Elijah J. Bond.  Bond then sold the invention to the Kennard Novelty Company.  The Kennard Company made the Oujia boards became commercially available later that year.  The story goes that while Kennard’s office manager William Fuld was experimenting with the board he received instructions for building his own Ouija factory.

After a hostile take-over of the Kenner Company, Fuld claimed to have invented the board and established trademark on the concept and the Oujia name.   Fuld sold thousands of boards and shipped them across the country. He adamantly refused to pay taxes on the Oujia sales stating that the boards were scientific instruments, not games, and therefor not taxable.  Fuld’s battle against the IRS went all the way to the Supreme Court whose 1920 decision legally categorized Oujia as a game.  In 1927 Fuld fell from the roof of the very factory the Ouija had purportedly instructed him to build.  Weather accident or suicide, William Fuld’s death heightens macabre tone of the boards, and increased sales. 

Fuld’s children successfully ran the family Oujia business until 1966 when it was sold to Parker Brothers.  Parker Brothers moved Oujia production Salem, Massachusetts and it immediately began to outsell Monopoly.




 Ouija: It's only a game--Isn't it??


Although the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the Ouija is a game, there is a surprising sentiment amongst the North American public that it is not.  Many religious groups forbid playing with the Oujia and most parents will not allow the item inside the home. The Ouija Mystifying Oracle Talking Board of today is a masonite imitation of William Fuld’s 1920 design.  Although there is some skepticism of the newer, cheaper, glow-in-the-dark boards, there remains a general consensus that the game works.

Over the course of a century, the board has been used to channel everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Houdini.  Emily Grant Hutchins claimed to have used the board to transcribe Mark Twain’s posthumous novel Jap Herron 1916.  In World War II using the Ouija board became popular with women attempting to contact husbands who were fighting overseas.  In times of national tragedy, Ouija sales have increased.  Individuals having difficulty coping with the loss of a loved one have been known to consult the game. 

There is no instruction booklet for the Oujia.  There is only one rule that everyone knows: Never play alone.  Psychosis and suicide are the potential consequences of breaking this rule.  While Christians may believe the movement of the planchette is the work of the devil, skeptics say someone else was pushing.  Psychologists often explain that Ouija messages are a product of the subconscious.  Scientists have explained that the nervous energy of participates propels the moving planchette.  Despite its reputed power, professional psychics are hesitant to use the Board as it is notorious for opening a door to the dark side.

The Oujia Board may be the most misplaced item in Toys R Us.  Somehow it never seems right to see a device for spirit communication stuffed in between Candyland and the Hungry Hungry Hippos.  Despite its dark reputation, however, Oujia has been one of the best selling games in American for over a century. 



Because it has survived the century, the Ouija board is an interesting example of the changing landscape of American toys.   During the early part of the century, handmade inventions were shared between individuals.  In was common to copy or improve upon the ideas of others.  Many ideas that had once belonged to the general public have since become private property.  The owner of a toy or game patient often masquerades as its inventor.   

The true story of a toy may be lost and its actual origins hidden in tall-tales and marketing schemes.  Fact or fiction, the stories that endure are often as intriguing as the playthings themselves.   The mythology surrounding the toys and games of North America reveals the values and aspirations of its inhabitants.  Surprising revelations arise during the study of North American toys.  The popularity of the Oujia board, for instance, indicates Americans may not be as materialistic as they pretend.  The success of the game reveals a persistent fascination with the occult that Americans do not often admit.

The following toys are selected from among millions of North American playthings.  In addition to being exemplary of the age in which they were created, they are commercially successful today.   In order to succeed through multiple generations, playthings must stay young.  Classic toys are constantly repackaging and renewing themselves.   Updates in materials, production methods, packaging, and advertising campaigns keep the same objects selling. 





            As diverse and complex as the population of North America may be, most everyone has owned a Teddy Bear.  In 1902 President Roosevelt had bad luck hunting.  In an attempt to preserve his rugged reputation, the Presidential staff tied a domestic bear to a tree as an easy target.  The President refused to shoot and the story became well known in a political cartoon by Clifford Berryman.  Upon seeing the drawing, Morris Mitchtom, a Russian immigrant and Brooklyn shopkeeper, asked his wife Rose to sew toy bears that resembled the cub in the cartoon.  Morris sent one of the completed bears to President Teddy Roosevelt along with a note requesting permission to name the loveable animals after him.  Roosevelt agreed and Rose Mitchtom’s bears were placed in the shop window with a sign that read “Teddy’s Bears. ”  Mania ensued.  Despite her seamstress abilities, Rose Mitchtom could not keep up with the demand for Teddy’s Bears.  In 1903, the enterprising couple joined with the Butler Brother’s wholesalers to establish The Ideal Toy and Novelty Company as the first Teddy bear company in the United States. 

            America’s continued fascination with European toys, however, would soon threaten domestic teddy bear production.  In 1903, Margarete Steiff introduced a line of plush bears from Germany.  Her bears were more realistic that Rose Mitchtom’s and they had the benefit of movable limbs.  When the Steiff bears were released in North America the patriotic roots of the Teddy bear were quickly forgotten.  The Steiff name was in demand and Mitchtom’s sales plummeted.  The Mitchtom’s business managed to survive by adapting their bears to mimic the Steiff.  The attraction of toys from Europe continued to be a problem for domestic toy makers until the onset of World War I.  

In the 19th Century, children played with toys that were made for them by neighbors and members of the family.  Mothers sewed dolls and soft animals for their children.  Fathers built miniature houses, toy boats, and pull toys.  After the turn of the 20th Century, industrial productivity was high and children provided the labor necessary for keeping up demand.  Playtime and playthings were rare and valuable treats.  To the emerging upper class, European toys were symbols of wealth and sophistication.  When toys were bought, they generally came from overseas.

Many of the toys that were invented during the beginning of the century exhibit a shift from handmade toys into assembly line products.  The original red wagons were hand carved by Italian immigrant Antonio Pasin in his cabinet shop.  As demand for his Liberty Coaster Wagon outgrew his ability to produce, Pasin was drawn to the low cost and high output of stamped steel.  In 1927, Pasin replaced his assistant carpenters with assembly line machines.  The metal wagon was given a new name and soon the Radio Flyer was an international success.

 The first Raggedy Ann dolls on the market were handmade by Johnny Gruelle and his wife Myrtle.  They were based on a rag doll their daughter Marcella had owned before her untimely death at 13.  The couple sewed a candy heart inside each doll hoping to give other children the love they could no longer give to their own.  Johnny, a political cartoonist for the New York Herald, wrote stories about the doll and dedicated them to his daughter.  Eventually the P.F. Volland publishing group bought the rights to the Greuelle’s Raggedy Ann books and oversaw the manufacturing of the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.  Because the candy was fragile, it could not withstand the assembly line. Volland executives replaced the heart with cardboard.   In a relatively short amount of time, the assembly line items proved as lovable as those handmade items that went before.


INVENTION: Steam and the Lionel Train

The Age of Invention sparked a new wave of international progress.  Delightful products were emerging from America.  The telephone, the phonograph, electricity and the automobile had captured the attention of the entire world.  Toys in North America both mimicked and influenced the progression of technology.  Model cars were born alongside the automotive industry, replicating and sometimes predicting its changes. Toy airplanes celebrated the successful flight of the Wright Brothers in 1903.        

Before the advent of television and radio, stores depended on interesting window displays to attract customers.  Movement, color, and the latest technology were used to draw shoppers inside.  In 1901, Joshua Lionel Cowen introduced shopkeepers to a wooden crate called the Electric Express that moved products around the showcase window on an electric track.  

Instead of purchasing the items the Electric Express tried to promote, customers outbid one another for the display items storekeepers were reluctant to sell.  Cohen’s invention was mesmerizing because it made the new and mystifying power of Electricity visible.  When Cowen realized the demand for his invention he quickly replaced what shopkeepers sold from their window display.  The next season Cowen added a steam engine and a trolley car and remarketed his product as the Lionel Train.  Within a few years, full railroad sets came equipped with working lights, steaming engines, and heart stopping sounds.   

As the nation grew more urban minded so did its toys.  Magician and Olympic Pole Vaulter, A.C. Gilbert marketed the Erector Set in 1913.  This steel building toy allowed children to mimic the skyscrapers that were appearing in American cities.  John Lloyd Wright patented Lincoln Logs in 1916.  His wood beam building toys were modeled after construction his father Frank Lloyd Wright was using within the Imperial Hotel, an “earthquake resistant” tower in Japan.  The industrial progress of America was captivating and it was common for children’s toys to mimic real life inventiveness.



Expensive, beautiful, and sweet turn of the century girls cherished the porcelain dolls that came from Europe.  But porcelain is as fragile as little girl’s hearts and in all of New York City, there was only one place that could fix both: Maurice Alexander’s Doll Hospital.

The Great War cut off the European supply that was needed to repair the porecelin dolls.  Then the existance of the hospital seemed threatened, it was Maurice’s daughter Beatrice Alexander who proposed that she and her sisters make new dolls as replacements.  No one knew dolls better than Maurice’s daughters and soon they were hiring local tenement women to help keep up with demand.  1923, less than three years after women in the United States received the right to vote, Beatrice took out a $1600 loan to create the Alexander Doll Company. [ii]  Beatrice adopted the name “Madame” and her dolls quickly gained a distinguished reputation.  America’s first doll hospital was saved.

By the time European dolls returned to the market, they found it difficult to compete with the popularity of the Alexander Dolls.   In 1933 Madame Alexander released her Alice and Wonderland dolls to coincide with the cinematic release of Lewis Carroll’s fairytale.   This move introduced the concept of media-ins that would eventually characterize the North American toy industry.

 Madame Alexander influenced the media as much as it influenced her.   In 1936, she produced a Scarlet O’Hara doll that was the spitting image of Vivian Leigh.  Remarkably, it wasn’t until 1939 that the actress was chosen to play the role.

To date, the Alexander Doll Company has produced close to 5,000 different dolls and licensed hundreds of media characters that range from Gidget to Queen Elizabeth.  Recently, Madame Alexander Dolls made a surprise appearance inside McDonald’s Happy Meals. 



During the Depression the toy industry boomed.  With more than half of the United States and Canada out of work, there was no choice but to play.  Inexpensive games such as Bingo and Crossword became popular means of escaping boredom and despair.   Homemade copies of board games were played regularly.

 In 1931, retired Dartmouth Professor Frank Austin invented the Austin Ant House as a means for occupying kids who had been pushed out of factory jobs.  The bankrupt professor used a wooden frame, two pieces of glass, and a heap of soil to create an observable ant habitat.  When he noticed the busy ants also captivated the imagination of his out of work neighbors, Austin began selling the kits as a novelty.  Dartmouth University reports that Austin was eventually able to pay local children four dollars for a quart of ants.   150 ants were mailed with each kit. [iii]



Monopoly experts agree that the original concept for “America’s favorite game” was patented in 1904 as The Landlord’s Game by a woman named Elizabeth Maggie.  The object of the play, “to obtain the most wealth or money as possible,” was to illustrate the evils of price gouging and monopolistic ventures.  Instead, it became practice for establishing them. 

Students at the top business schools such as Wharton and Yale began playing The Landlord’s Game on homemade boards.  Although Maggie approached Parker Brothers several times for publication, she was consistently rejected.  The popularity of the her game however, continued to spread across the continent.

Ruth Haskins, a teacher at the Quaker Friends School, made a simpler version of the Landlord’s Game for her students to play.  In so doing, she renamed the properties according to the local Atlantic City Streets. 

Charles Darrow, an out of work plumber, was introduced to the Atlantic City version of the Landlord’s Game in 1932.  Darrow redrew the board and began selling copies of it in Philadelphia department stores.  Meanwhile, he shopped the game to Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. Both publishers initially rejected Monopoly on the grounds that it took too long to play.  What the game executives failed to realize, however, is that during the Depression, were needy for ways to spend their time.  When Parker Brother’s finally published the game in 1935, Monopoly sold 1.8 million copies[iv] and Darrow’s progression from rags to riches became legendary. 

Although it is generally agreed that Darrow stole the Monopoly concept, he can be credited with giving the game its unique look.  The light bulb, the train, and the Jailbird make Monopoly unforgettable.  Darrow’s creation Rich Uncle Pennybags (now Mr. Monopoly) is one of the most widely licensed characters in the States.

Presently there is an edition of the game to suit every interest.  There is a Dale Earnhardt Monopoly, a Napa Valley Monopoly, and just about every Monopoly in-between.  A large number of North American Universities have their own version of Monopoly, as do most cities. In its constant revisions, street names are altered and the board is given a slightly new look.

Monopoly has been published in 27 languages including Braille and 200 million sets have been sold worldwide. When Castro gained power 1959, he vehemently destroyed all Monopoly sets in Cuba. The same year in Moscow, all six sets on display at the American National Exhibition vanished. [v] With its play money, expensive real estate, and cold business practices, it is obvious: Monopoly is the official game of Capitalism.



DC Comics introduced their first picture books in 1934 when the continent was increasingly unemployed and disillusioned.  The easy to read, share, and enjoy comics gave Americans a constantly updated escape from their increasingly difficult lives. 

Superman first appeared in 1938 in DC’s Action Comics #1.  Toronto’s Joe Schuster drew the Superman cartoons while Cleveland’s Jerry Siegel wrote the script.  Together they proved the strength of a unified Canada and America.  Upon the birth of the superhero North Americans shifted from playing with reality--cars, skyscrapers—into a world of fantasy—kryptonite, golden lassoes.  Superhero culture continues to thrive in the Americas.  Batman, Wonder Woman and the entire League of Justice are recognized by youngest children and remembered by the oldest adults. 



Through the new technology of the radio people in the 1930’s tuned into quiz shows and other on-air contests.  Vacation packages were awarded by the broadcast media to the “real-life” contestants who participated in the live games.  The concept of reality programming attracted listeners who hoped to win a way out of their desperate situations. Many early radio programs such as Information Please and Professor Quiz distributed game booklets such that listeners could play in conjunction with the broadcast.  In 1938, Milton Bradley released a board game version of the popular radio program Paul Wing’s Spelling Bee.  Throughout the 40’s, NBC marketed a slew of  products related to the Quiz Kids show.

The Little Orphan Annie Radio Show invited children to send away for decoder pens that could help them interpret cryptic messages read during the program.   A beverage called Ovaltine sponsored the Orphan Annie show and to get the pens, children sent in proofs of purchase from the chocolate flavored product. The 1983 classic movie  The Christmas Story immortalizes the excitement with which American children anticipated the arrival of their Little Orphan Annie Decoder Pen.




            Eventually, the continent made its way out of the Depression and into the conflict overseas.   Canada entered World War II in 1939 in defense of Great Britain.   The US remained neutral until the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.  During the war, domestic productivity increased for both countries.  The toy industry exploded and the invention of plastic gave manufacturers the ability to make toys that were both inexpensive and realistic.

During the war the United States Government was seeking a synthetic rubber that could be used to manufacture military items such as tires, boots, and grenades.  James Wright was a chemical engineer working on the project for General Electric.  When Wright mixed boric acid with silicone oil, it appeared as if he had accomplished his goal.  The compound looked, felt, and bounced like rubber. To Wright’s dismay, it also broke easily and had a tendency to melt. G.E. scientists00 spent the next five years researching practical applications for the product.  Ultimately, they concluded it was useless.

            In 1949, an unemployed Canadian by the name of Peter Hodgson attended a party at the house of a G.E. executive.  During the course of the evening Wright’s chemical reaction was demonstrated by the host.  Hodgson was thrilled with the resulting compound and soon convinced his shop-owner friend Ruth Fallgatther to sell it in her toy store.  The putty did not succeed as they had expected and Fallgatther eventually dropped the product. The chicken, or this case the putty, actually did come first.  The following Easter, Hodgson had the idea to package the product within a plastic egg.  The whimsical idea stuck and the product was renamed Silly Putty.  It has sold remarkably well ever-since.

Somewhere near the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, Herb Sharper got the Cooties.  As if possessed, Sharper began whittling and whittling and whittling bug-like fishing lures.  In 1948, the first official year of Cootie production,  Schaper is said to have carved 40,000 bugs by hand.  Catching more children than fish, Sharper decided to sell his creations as toys.   The following year Herb was introduced to plastic casting techniques and soon The W.H. Sharper Toy Company began infesting the world– first Cooties, then Tickle Bees, Thumbugs, and Ants in the Pants. 

Toys are often the accidental inventions of scientists.  Richard James, a nautical engineer, was building a navigational system that would maintain its balance on rough seas when he knocked a coil spring off his workbench.  When he showed his wife how it miraculously the spring stepped down to the floor, she named it Slinky.  Together in 1945, the couple introduced the Slinky at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia.  The toys sold out in an hour making Slinky an immediate success. With a lucky idea, Richard and Betty James, the hardworking middleclass couple, became superstars of the American dream.

The technologies of one age become the toys of another.  In the days of coal heating, soot was removed from the walls by stamping it with a tacky bread-like product called Kutol. The invention of radiators eliminated the need for wallpaper cleaner.  Joseph McVicker, proprietor of the family business Kutol was nearly bankrupt when his daughter-in-law Kay Zufall read in a teacher’s magazine that making Christmas ornaments out of wallpaper cleaner was a good craft activity for kids.   She repackaged Kutol and since 1955, children all over the continent have become familiar with the salty taste and unique smell of Play-Doh.



Upon the surrender of Hitler in May of 1945, America and Canada were enjoying the respect of the entire world.  The flag waving euphoria lasted just 2 months.   In July of the same year, the United States defeated Japan in two gruesome blasts of light caused by bombs with toy like names.  Little Boy, Fat Man and the threat of further nuclear war sent America into a paranoid fit.  The children of the nuclear age began doing strange things like cramming telephone booths and throwing Frisbee pie tins.  Hula Hoop, Slinky, Magic 8 Ball, and Mr. Potato Head, are the fallout of science and suburbia.

Norm Stingley was the chief chemist for the Bettis Rubber Company when he was given a compound the company was hoping to develop for use in the oil industry.  Stingley was fascinated by the way the new polymer bounced.  By pouring the compound into a round mold, Stingley produced the world’s first Superball.  The original ball was compressed at 2,500 pounds per square inch, which made it highly unstable.  Certain bounces would cause the ball to explode into tiny pieces.  It took Stingley and Wham-O product developer Ed Hedrick months in the laboratory to render the Superball indestructible.

Harold von Braunhut first sold Sea Monkey’s as a mail order item in the back of comic books.   The original kit included an aquarium, a “purifier package” and “instant egg package.”  Combining the contents of the two packages in the aquarium full of water magically brought creatures to life.  Scientifically speaking, the toy reanimates Artemia Salina, a species of brine shrimp that becomes dormant in dry conditions.  In order to extend the lifespan of the toy, the New York Ocean Sciences created a brine shrimp hybrid called Artemia NYOS. [vi]  The Transcience Toy Company presently guarantees the life of the Sea Monkeys for 2 years.



Unlike the Mr. Potato Heads produced today, George Lerner’s 1948 “Funny Face Man” did not include a plastic potato.  Instead, it provided plastic facial feature kids could push into any fruit or fresh vegetable.  Adults who recently had been subject to food shortages during the Depression and rationing during the Second World War objected to Mr. Potato Head on the grounds that it taught children to be wasteful and play with their food.  The toy survived the criticism to become a national favorite.  In 1952 Mr. Potato Head became the first toy to have his own television spot.  Sales skyrocketed and the marketing of toys was changed forever.    

By the time television was introduced to American households, children and adults had well-established habits of purchasing items directly related to broadcast programming. The Disneyland Game was released in conjunction with the Mickey Mouse Club in 1955.  It is considered the first TV tie-in game.

Miniature versions of Roy Rogers and his horse Nellybell were released by Ideal in 1956.  These plastic figures started a tradition of toy production that allowed North American children to play along their favorite television shows.   The success of the TV inspired line was perpetuated through a bandwagon of toy companies who began producing plastic versions of primetime’s favorite characters.



            After working at Los Alamos on the development of the Atomic Bomb, physicist Willy Higinbotham began research at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a nuclear facility on Long Island.   To calm the nerves of residents who lived near Brookhaven scientists invited locals to open house events.  Hoping to “liven up the place”[vii] for these events, Higinbotham and his colleagues invented a game using a piece of laboratory equipment called an oscilloscope. 

The game was called Tennis for Two and the simple graphics resembled a side view of a tennis court.  Players operated paddle controllers to angle their shot and pushed a red button on the hand set to hit the digital ball.   Though it sounds rudimentary today, the game attracted large crowds to the Brookhaven open houses and they waited hours for the opportunity to play.  Invented in 1958, Tennis for Two is considered the world’s first video game.



When a day at the lab was over, men returned to well-kept suburban wives who had prepared dinner, cleaned house, and slipped into pair of stockings to welcome their husbands home.  Women of the 1950’s were expected to take care of the home and children.  They typically sacrificed professional ambition in support of men who pursued cutthroat careers.  From this unlikely environment, emerged the most powerful woman in the North American toy industry.

Ruth Handler was on vacationing in Europe when she spotted erotic toy named the German men called Lilli.  Lillis were small but voluptuous dolls that were sold in tobacco shops and given as sexy presents at Bachelor parties.  Although the toys were intended for an adult male audience, Handler bought several Lillis to give to her daughter Barbara.  After observing her little girl’s enjoyment of the doll, the Handler’s toy company Mattel contacted the German company Weissbrodt/Hausser to acquire rights to the Lilli.  Remodeled and renamed, Barbie made her dramatic debut at the International Toy Fair in New York in 1959.

In contrast to the prim and proper Madame Alexander dolls, Barbie was shapely and scantily clad.  In contrast to the historical baby doll, Barbie’s physique was that of a well- developed woman.  Instead of nurturing Barbie, young girls tended to idolize her.

Today, Barbie is a rock star and an astronaut.  She’s soldier and a model.  She can be a politician or a McDonald’s employee. Whatever her job, she can hardly move.  Barbie’s joints have minimal flexibility in order to preserve the shapeliness of her arms and impossible legs.

Exaggerated sexuality and an unattainable physique make Barbie dolls questionable role models for little girls.  Parents and feminists agree that Barbie may be responsible for body image problems in young girls. In a 1977 interview with the New York Times, Handler stated her opinion that Barbie’s voluptuousness would improve the self-esteem of girls anticipating the development of breasts. In 1975, sixteen years after the debut of Barbie, Handler introduced her newest product, the "Nearly Me" prosthetic breast implants.



1.)    Dolls are for girls 

2.)    G.I. Joe is not at doll. 


Hoping to imitate Mattel’s success with Barbie, Hasbro began shaping a similar item for boys.   Hasbro coined the term “action figure” for G.I.Joe and subsequently established a new genre of playthings. “Government Issue” Joe represents the ultimate American soldier.  He is in the Army, Navy, Airforce, and Marines.  He is every race and any background.  His face, hair, and outfit changes but his fearless strength remains the same.  Like Barbie, G.I. Joe is sold inexpensively but his accessories --Assault Vehicles and Ninja Hovercycles -- are not.

            The G.I. Joe character was developed during World War II when public support for the military was high.  When the American’s grew weary of the conflict in Vietnam, G.I. Joe sales dropped.  Hasbro saved G.I. Joe’s career by pulling him out of the jungle and sending him into outer space.






Throughout the early portion of the Twentieth Century many toys were derogatory towards African Americans.  It is still common to find examples of “darkie” toys in American antique stores.  The toys created racial stero-types by exaggerating the physical features of darker Americans and diminishing their intellectual capacities.   Characters such as “Sambo” and “Mammie” were so common that white adults rarely questioned the implications such toys would have on the perceptions of their children.

At one time it was not unusual for American businesses such to place life-like black dolls in their window display.  The “darkie” toys were meant to be fun, friendly, and welcoming to customers.  Today they are racist, dehumanizing and obscene.  Little Black Sambo is a character that belongs to a certain time in history.  For contemporary adult Americans it is impossible to look at the Sambo toys in a fun way.  Still, these items have a strong resale market.  Certain collectors appreciate the financial value of these out-of-production items.  Other Americans believe that the racist toys should be destroyed.  They feel that the display of such items perpetuates the racism that is implicit within them.            

David Pilgrim is the Curator of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University. He is among those who believe these toys should remain in the public eye.  He has collected 4,000+ derogatory pieces for his museum.  “I collect this garbage” Pilgrim says, “because I believe and I know to be true, that items of intolerance can be used to teach tolerance.”[viii]   Whatever their fate, it is hoped that the knowledge of these ugly dolls from the past will teach future generations to avoid history’s mistakes.




COUNTER CULTURE 1960’s – 1970’s 

            Mattel introduced Christie and Brad, the first American fashion dolls with dark skin and ethnic features, in 1968.  In the same year the Miss Black America Pageant and a network of local contests such as Miss Black Alabama, were created for women who were not permitted in the Caucasian pageants.

            Twister was released just one year prior to the legalization of The Pill.  Denounced by competitors as “sex in a box” Twister became a popular party game when Johnny Carson played against the sultry Eva Gabor on a 1966 episode of the Tonight Show.  That year Milton Bradley sold 3 million copies of Twister and established a new connection between the game industry and late night television.

            Nature eyed and naked, Troll Dolls became popular in the mid-1960’s. Thomas Dam’s Trolls were friendly and magical creatures in world of increasing conflict. Honest and unagressive, the Trolls nudity, free love, and wild hair predicted the emergence of hippie culture.



Game shows were extremely popular in the early 70’s.  Hosted by Bob Barker, The Price is Right asked contestants to guess retail prices of prizes and products through a series of games.  Blinking lights and velvet curtains set the stage for America's hopeful public to take a shot at winning new cars and exotic travel vacations. Women hosting the show became known as "Barker's Beauties" and ranged from Playboy models to Miss America winners. Bob Barker's "Come on Down!" is a phrase that has become immortalized in popular culture and now, over 30 years later, Bob Barker still running the show. With dreamy someday desire, the television game show reflects America’s obsession with fame and fortune.

Chuck Barris, another famous game show host, introduced reality TV in the 70’s. The Dating Game, The Gong Show and The Newlywed Game were three of the most popular television shows games during the late 70's and early 80's. These games played on American’s desire for fame. Before becoming celebrities Suzanne Sommers, Arnold Schwarzenegger and the future PeeWee Herman, Paul Rubens appeared as contestants on Chuck Barris' unusual game shows. 

Although Barris’ shows developed a reputation for being tacky and crass, the current reality TV game shows are far more brutal in comparison. People eat cockroaches and sit in tanks of leeches on NBC’s Fear Factor.  Contestants face grueling challenges and Tribes play for blood on CBS’ Survivor.  In the newest television reality games, sportsmanship is out the window and players are voted out of the game by the “disapproval voting” of other contestants. 






Ralph Baer developed “the Brown Box” a prototype for first home video game console-- The Odyssey --while working for the military contractor Saunders Associates.  In 1972, he convinced Magnavox to manufacture the product promising it would help sell television sets.  Although it was a commercial flop, The Magnavox Odyssey opened the doors to home video gaming.

PONG was introduced in November of 1972.   Available as home consoles and coin-operated machines, PONG is considered the first commercially successful video game. Atari’s Nolan Bushnell and Al Alcorn developed the digital game as an update of Higinbothom’s Tennis for Two.

PONG ushered in the Age of the Arcade.  In the 70’s and early 80’s video arcades sprang up in shopping malls, bowling alleys, and movie theaters. The arcade provided a both place to escape and a place to be seen. Lights blinking, and electronic sounds dinging, America’s pinball youth mastered the terms and maneuvers of slam tilt, slingshot and slap save while video gamers faced their screened challenges with joysticks and guns in either cockpit, (sit-in) cocktail (sit-down) or cabaret (stand at) formats.

            At some point during the Golden Age of the Arcade video gaming establishments developed a seedy reputation.  Nightly news reported drug use and violent behavior among teens at the arcade.  Adults, who already frowned upon the wastefulness of video games, ruled the arcade off-limits.   Family Fun Centers such as Showbiz Pizza and Chuck E. Cheese emerged as family-oriented substitutes for the increasingly dangerous arcade.

            The Atari 2600 brought the video arcade safely home.  The console operated plug-in software cartridges that allowed owners to constantly update their video library. Breakout, Donkey Kong, Pole Position, Space Invaders, and Pac-Man and hundreds of other games were developed for the Atari.  Competitive systems such as Mattel Intellivision and ColecoVision forced Atari to upgrade.  The 5200 however could not save the company from the 1983 video game crash.  The oversaturated video game market and the proliferation of the personal computer ruined American console manufactures.

IBM, Texas Instruments, Apple, and Atari had been competing with one another for dominance in the personal computer market when the Commodore 64 became the best selling personal computer in the world.  The appeal of the C64 was its ability to plug directly into the television.  For one low cost, the C64 was both personal computer and a home gaming system.   As the gaming possibilities of the home computer improved, it was speculated that the video game industry would never recover. 

The Japanese company Nintendo found opportunity admits bankruptcy of the Silicone Valley. During the mid 80’s the NES became the dominant console on the market.  In 1989 Nintendo updated America’s landscape with the introduction of the Game Boy.  Suddenly boys were seen playing video games in some of the most remote, most irritating places from deserts to dinner tables.

            In the mid-90’s Sony developed Playstation, a line of console and handheld gaming devices that proved wildly successful.  The Playstation stepped into the 3rd Dimension and ushered in a new era of gaming that was more realistic and more popular than ever.   

            Microsoft, the world’s largest software company, introduced Xbox in 2001 in attempts to diversify their product line.   Enhanced graphics, a wide variety of games, and the addition of non-gaming features such as a CD/DVD player made the Xbox the new standard in home equipment.  In 2002 subscriptions to Xbox Live were made available to allow competition between international players via Internet.




As if in protest to the isolating world of cable TV and video games, there was a sudden resurgence in parlor games across North America in the 1980’s.  Tests of knowledge, which had been popular diversions in the Victorian era, became favorites again.  Scott Abbott, an editor for the Canadian Press, and Chris Haney, a photo editor at the Montreal Gazette, invented trivial Pursuit in 1979.  The self-proclaimed “revolt against television”[ix] Trivial Pursuit sold 20 million copies in the year of its United States release.  To date, there have been innumerable versions of the game produced: Trivial Pursuit Kids, Trivial Pursuit Book Lovers, and Trivial Pursuit Star Wars.  Hasbro acquired Trivial Pursuit in 1992 and contrary to the intentions of its inventors, the latest versions of the Trivial Pursuit come with a supplemental DVD/TV game. 



            Gary Gygax and Dave Anderson introduced the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons in 1974.  The tabletop war game combined skill, chance, and character development to become fantastically popular among teenage boys in the 1980’s.  Parental advisory panels were alarmed by the amount of time adolescents were spending on the game.  The threat of D&D seems strangely laughable in contrast to today’s violent video games, still, conservative churches warn against playing a role-playing game that is ruled by dragons, goblins, and dungeon masters.  

            Role-playing became popular with a wider public in the late 90’s in the form of Murder Mystery parties, board games and interactive-theatre.  In 2000 role-playing also proved successful among video gamers. The hack and slash game Diablo II sold more than a million copies in two weeks to become the fastest selling PC game ever.[x]


COLLECTION vs. CRAZE mid 1980’s- mid 1990’s

Among the most memorable Christmas scenes from the 1980’s were televised fistfights between mothers vying for plastic-headed baby dolls.  No two Cabbage Patch Kids were alike and each one came with a birth certificate and adoption papers.   Xavier Roberts credits a “magical cabbage patch hidden behind a beautiful waterfall”[xi] with the creation of the Cabbage Patch Kids.  In reality, Roger Schlaifer, an advertising expert from Atlanta, had a lot to do with it.  Schlaifer connected Roberts, a craftsman from rural Georgia, with Coleco, a New England manufacturing company who was nearly bankrupt after the failure of its home video game console ColecoVision.  Each Cabbage Patch Kid was loved for its unique qualities and it was Coleco’s high-tech capabilities that made the mass production of individuality possible.  Random computer applications changed hair and eye color, dimple and freckle location, name, and style of clothes.

            The Cabbage Patch phenomena reminded North American toy companies that the most sought after audience may not be children at all.  The most loyal, reliable, and affluent toy consumers, it turns out, are adult collectors.  In 1996, the Beanie Babie craze struck the American continent.  Failed actor but savvy businessman Ty Warner created an air of exclusivity about his dolls by introducing them in limited quantities.  He sold them at boutiques instead of department stores.  As a result, millions of Americans became convinced the dolls would become valuable over time.  Buying and selling Beanie Babies became as serious as trading stocks.  The value of the toys never did yield the return some had expected.  With or without the heart-shaped tag intact, very few Beanie Babies have gained on the dollar.  Ten years after the peak of the craze, Ty Warner is among wealthiest men in the world and millions of American attics contain large plastic trash bags filled with small bean-filled dolls.


21st Century:  INFORMATION

Today the shelves of every Toys R Us, Wal-Mart and on-line Internet warehouses are swelling with bright shiny boxes containing the latest and greatest toys, games and hobby kits.  There are toys and games of virtually every conceivable sort and they are suitable for just about everyone - fast moving dice games and slow strategic board games. There are toys to cuddle and toys to throw.

Toys, games, and action figures have been developed to commemorate all aspects of American popular culture from athletics to political campaigns.  These historically significant items are important to collectors.  

During his Presidency, George W. Bush inspired a boom in business of political toys.  “From bobbleheads to talking action figures” said D. Parvaz in the Seattle Post,  “he’s well on his way to becoming one of the most action-figured president ever.” [xii] Bush dolls sell well to Americans on both ends of the political spectrum.  Whether in celebration or mockery, the ability to have fun with politics is a fundamental America right that is protected in the United States by the Constitution.   North Americans cherish their right to poke fun at national leaders and employ it frequently.

As media continues to infiltrate the playtime of American families, licensing becomes increasingly important for toy companies.  By stamping media related logos and characters upon products, the toy manufactures allow Hollywood to do their advertising for them. When new games are developed, the industry finds they are magically successful with a media tie-in.  The Desperate Housewives Boardgame and the Brittney Spears Barbie are recent best sellers.  The endurance of a television show or a licensed character promises toy companies an extended financial success.  Instead of sitting on the forefront of ingenuity, the toy companies seem to follow lazily on the tailcoats of culture. 

The Internet and high-speed connections have made World Wide Web developer Tim Berners-Lee the most important toy inventor in the world.   North American children and adults of all ages, sexes, and backgrounds spend a portion of the day playing games on the computer.  Every memorable game of the past from Rubik's cube to PONG has been rescripted in HTML and posted on the Net.  Sites such as allow users to publish and play homemade video games.  Despite the growing influence of the Internet in American life, it is not yet common to model toys after Web sites.   The most popular toys do have their webpages and online fan clubs. G.I. Joe’s homepage looks like a war-based video game and Barbie’s website resembles a My Space profile.

The popularity of computer and video games, as well as electronic toys has been increasing steadily ever since the 1983 drop-off.   Electronic games are aimed at both sexes and at all age groups. Today’s electronic toys can roar, sniff and bite, they can walk, run and hunt. Some of them, if left alone long enough, will roam at their free will.  Popular electronic toys such as I-Dogs, are marketed with personalities that changes with the music.  Hasbro’s interactive musical companions “groove to the beat of your I-pod” and act out emotions ranging from joy to loneliness.   Neo-Pets are another variety of robotic animal that sing, obey commands, and communicate with one another.






Prior to being immortalized by the 2001 Sylvia Naser film A Beautiful Mind, Princeton University Mathematics Professor John Nash and his colleagues John Harasanyi and Reinhard Selten won the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics for their work in Game Theory.  The theory suggests that all human behavior from science to sexuality can be understood in terms of game playing.  According to this idea, humans are in constant competition with one another.  Decisions to gain points (money, love, etc) are made by one individual in response to the moves of others.   In the game of life, players develop strategies, make alliances, and abandon territories in order to secure the greatest payoff.   Game Theory began as an economic application but it is now used to describe behavioral patterns in sociology, political science, and biology.






The North American mind is a storehouse of games.  Collective games are the subconscious material that weaves society together.  There are games for special occasions such as weddings and birthdays.  There are games for specific places like the beaches or roller rinks. 

The rules to these games are deeply embedded within the psyche where they can survive for years untouched.  When the occasion arises, the rules are remembered and the play begins again.  Collective games teach strategy, teamwork, and conflict resolution. Through games we xpress emotions and develop personalities.

Hopscotch and Hangman are among the hundreds of games the entire continent knows how to play.  Where did these games come from--  Tic-Tac-Toe and Simon Says?  Televisions, activity books, and cereal boxes teach games.  So do parents, friends, and circus performers.  New games are acquired in social clubs, campgrounds, schools, gymnasiums, playgrounds, and casinos.   In short, games are everywhere.  Once a game is learned, it is difficult to forget.  Even the most stern-looking individual is a treasury of games and  the attempt to catalog the games within the collective memory would be a lifetime endeavor.  The following examples are but a few of the games North Americans instinctively know.



In America, wishes are made on dandelions as the seeds are blown into the air.  Children play with sunlight using mirrors, watches, and magnifying glasses. They make friends with little creatures such as caterpillars, roly-pollies, and lightening bugs.  In the winter, American children build snowmen and have snowball fights.  At the beach everyone collects seashells and makes sandcastles. Children live in the world of play and everything around them is a toy.  From babies to bumblebees, children learn something is not a plaything only when it hurts or becomes boring.   Using found materials children build clubhouses & forts.  These become the center of their imaginary kingdom.



The game of life is consistent throughout human society.  As if by instinct, boys and girls mimic the actions of the adults around them.  In the playful world of American children even the greatest dreams are possible.  Some children pretend to be movie stars while others fly airplanes.  Becoming imaginary adults is a favorite activity whereby children first express career ambition. While young comedians often make up routines for their families, young accountants may be found playing games with calculators and pretend money.  Pantomiming adults allows children to experiment with a variety of personalities as they develop their own.

 In North America boys are given plastic versions of saws and other hand tools for playthings.  Girls are likely to receive pretend vacuum cleaners and Betty Crocker Easy-Bake Ovens.  It is common for young boys and girls to pretend to be married in the ever- popular activity of “Playing House.”  Boys generally shy away from the game as they learn from other boys that House is for girls.  Girls continue playing at domesticity in later childhood years while boys turn to action games like Cops and Robbers or Cowboys and Indians.



Children are adept at finding new uses for school supplies. While elementary school girls make paper fortune-tellers, boys make paper footballs.  Competitive in-school sports include Pencil Wars and paper clip bouncing.  Paper airplanes are still common in classrooms, so are spitballs.

In most elementary schools children are given a recess.  During this time, the children are allowed to play freely in the schoolyard.  Most adult Americans would confess that it was truly during the recess hours that they did most of their learning.   On the schoolyard, younger children play group games such as Red Rover, London-Bridges, Ring-Around the Posies, and Simon Says.  Simon Says is a game where one child is Simon.  The players must do what Simon Says, but only if the phrase "Simon Says"is used.  

  Older boys and girls play against one another in Four Square, Keep-away and Dodge ball.  Although these games are exceptionally competitive during recess, they are not taken seriously beyond the schoolyard.  Many games are learned during physical education classes and schools have designated field days where children compete for awards in the Sac Race, the three-legged race, the Tug-of –War, and various egg carrying contests. 

 It is common for elementary schools and churches to host weekend festivals.  At these community events, old-fashioned carnival games are revived.  Silent auctions, cakewalks, and dunking booths are standard features at these events.   Bobbing for Apples is a game in which a washtub is filled with water and loose apples. The apples float and the player arms are tied behind his or her back.  The player then kneels in attempt to capture an apple with the teeth.



Just as games are related to specific events, some games are native to particular places.  The amount of time North American children spend at swimming pools is reflected by the number of games they have invented to play there.  Marco Polo and Sharks and Minnows are pool games most kids know.

If the pool is equipped with a diving board, children participate in cannonball contests.  Older boys dominate this game where the object is to create the biggest splash.  Girls, many of whom take gymnastics lessons, have the advantage in diving contests.  Little girls at the pool cordially invite one another to Underwater Tea Parties.   If the invitation is accepted the girls hold their breath and submerge.  Sitting Indian-style on the floor of the pool, the girls drink pretend tea and eat pretend crumpets.  Diving for Pennies is another popular game for both girls and boys.   In this game, parents literally throw money in the pool and the children are expected to retrieve it. 

On the Fourth of July it is common for neighbors put a greased watermelon into the swimming pool. This is not a competitive game.  Contestants must work together to trap the floating watermelon and ease it out of the water.  It also happens that goldfish are put in the baby pool and young children are given nets to with which to catch them.  If the child catches the fish they get to take it home and keep it as a pet.  Sadly, however, few of these fish live very long and what began as a game becomes an introduction to death.



The negotiation game Rock, Paper, Scissors is often used to solve friendly disputes in North American society.  In this game, contestants make fists with one hand.  The players then pound their fists on the opposite palm while counting “one,” “two, ” “three” and on four the players make their hand into one of three shapes: rock, paper, or scissors.  Rocks smash scissors. Scissors cut paper. Paper covers rock. 

Thumb war is a more physical form of hand wrestling.  Players grasp hands such that thumbs are in the air.  On the count of “one, two, three, four.  I declare a thumb war” opponents try to capture the other player’s thumb and hold it down for the count of three.




In Twenty Questions one player thinks of an object and tells the other players if the thing is a “animal”, “vegetable”, or “mineral” (anything natural or manmade that has never been alive).  The other players take turns asking yes/no questions to discover the identity of the object.

I Spy is a game where “It” secretly picks an object everyone can see.  It says, “I Spy something that starts with an “M” (or alphabetically appropriate letter) and the other players try to guess which object It has in mind.   The first to guess correctly wins and subsequently becomes It.



            Several games have developed in relationship to the American road.  Punch Bug is a classic.  This game is played while driving or riding in a car.  The players are constantly looking for a Volkswagen Bug.  The player who first spots the automobile calls gets points by calling out “punchbug” or “buggy.”  He or she then punches another player in the arm.   

In the License Plate Game, players seek examples of car tags from other states and provinces.  The player who has spotted the most distant location wins.  The Alphabet Game,  Mad-Libs, and Battleship are among the many popular games for the car.  Games to play on airplanes remain virtually unknown.



            At Easter there are Easter Egg Hunts.  On Halloween there are pumpkin carving and costume contests.  At Christmas there is a game requiring lovers to kiss beneath the mistletoe.  Wishing on a blazing cake is one of America’s most anticipated games and Birthday candles extinguished in a single breath fulfill any dream.

At birthday parties, young children often play Pin the Tail on the Donkey.  In this game, a large image of a tailless Donkey is posted on the wall.  The birthday child is the first to be blindfolded and handed a tail.  After being spun in a circle several times, the child is pointed at the donkey that is several steps away.  Dizzy and blind, the child walks towards the animal and tries to attach the tail in the proper position.  Each child at the party is given a turn and the one who puts the tail in the most appropriate position wins. 

            At birthday parties for older children, paper-mache piĖata’s are common.  In this game the birthday child is blindfolded, spun in circles, given a bat, and asked to hit the hanging piĖata.  When the bat finds the piĖata, candy and toys are explode throughout the room.  Despite the country’s proximity to the United States, piĖata is one of the few Mexican games that are played in the English-speaking Americas.



            Adolescents play flirtatious games such as Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven.  Many American children receive their first kiss while playing one of these two games.  To play Spin the Bottle nervous youngsters sit in a circle around an empty wine bottle that is turned on its side.  Players take turns spinning the bottle and kissing the person it lands on.  The Player can spin again if the bottle points to a person of the same gender. 

Seven Minutes in Heaven is riskier adolescent game than Spin the Bottle.  In the game, couples are selected randomly and locked in a dark closet for a specified amount of time, seven minutes being the maximum.  During this time, the pair is expected to kiss and touch.  For many young American teenagers, this game is their first experience with physical intimacy.

Truth or Dare is another game popular among adolescents.   The game starts with the question "Truth or Dare?"  The respondent will say "Truth" and answer personal question or "Dare" accept challenge of a more physical nature.   After the player gives the truth or accomplishes the dare, they restart the game by asking “Truth or Dare?”



Whatever bizarre situation teenagers find themselves in during sessions of Truth or Dare, none are so humiliating as seeing their parents doing the Hokey Pokey.  Like the Macarena, this participatory song asks listeners to play along.  Although teenagers know the Hokey Pokey dance, most will refuse to participate.  Meanwhile, baby boomers, wedding planners, and roller skaters seem to think the Hokey Pokey is what its all about.



Pool and Darts are games descended from European pubs that are frequently played in American bars.  Foosball, Karaoke, and Trivia Contests are also popular in North American drinking establishments. Games that involve alcohol are common among college age adults.  Quarters is the most popular of these.  In this game coins, usually quarters, are bounced off the table into a shot glass.  If the coin does not land in the glass, the player must have a drink.  Players become inebriated quickly.  

Shot-gunning beers is drinking race popular with young adults.  Beer funneling and keg stands are among the more dangerous drinking games. These are generally played by young men although young women often participate.  Such games are often played at fraternity parties where the amount of alcohol a person can consume is considered a sign of strength.  With thousands of alcohol related deaths in the United States and Canada every year, these games are among the most deadly played in North America today.




At a wedding shower the engaged couple is required to play a homespun version of The New Newlywed Game.   The pair is separated asked a serious of questions designed to show how well acquainted they are with one another.  The woman is asked a different set of questions than her husband.  The answers are recorded on paper and the couple is brought together in front of the party.  The questions are asked a second time.  This time the man answers the questions his fiancée was asked previously and vice versa. The couple is given points when the answers match.  The crowd playfully chides them into arguments when they do not.  

Immediately following the wedding, the bride turns her back and tosses her bouquet to a crowd of assembled single women.  She who catches the bouquet is said to be the next bride.  The bride and groom then play a game of stuffing wedding cake into one another’s mouths.  Finally, the groom removes a garter belt from his new wife’s leg and throws it to an assembly of single men.  The fellow to catch the garter, likewise, will be the next to catch a wife.



            After periods of significant prohibition, Casino Gambling is now legal in twenty-seven of the fifty United States and in all eleven of the Canadian provinces.   According the to the World Casino Directory, there are just over one hundred legal gaming establishments in Canada.  Meanwhile, the United States has nearly fifteen hundred!  The Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut is the largest casino on the continent.  Even when prohibited by state law, legal gambling takes place on extravagant riverboats and Native American reservations.  Millions of dollars are annually won and lost on the roulette wheel and in the slot machines.  Bets on cards are made at Blackjack and Poker tables.  Keno is also a popular casino game.   In the 1960’s millionaire Howard Hughes had the idea to plant a strip of casinos in the arid Nevada desert.  The seductive landscape of Las Vegas has since become the gaming capital of the world.

            At homes throughout the continent, dice games and card games are played in competitions for money between friends.  North Americans frequently bet on sports.  Lottery games are played with Scratch Cards and Pull-tabs that are purchased at convince stores.  Lotto and Powerball winners are announced nightly on TV. 

            Poker is America’s card game. Although the precise history of Poker is unclear most credit the smoky saloons of the American frontier with its development.  For over a century, Poker has been the most popular card game on the continent.  It comes in hundreds of variations from Low-Ball to Texas Hold’em.  The play consists of assessing property, speculating on the actions of others, knowing how much to invest, understanding when to fold.  Poker teaches its players that to win, it is necessary to risk.  The game teaches the benefits of cooperation and the value of competition.  Most importantly, however, Poker teaches the difference between bluffing and lying.

            The antique game of poker has adapted with the technological revolution. Although most high stakes tournaments are still played with cards, large amounts of real money are won and lost through computerized competitions. Poker faces are no longer obligatory as online and cellular phone tournaments allow players to compete internationally from the privacy of their own home.






“all work and no play makes jack a dull boy all work and no play makes jack a dull boy

all work and no play makes jack a dull boy all work and no play makes jack a dull boy

all work and no play makes jack a dull boy all work and no play makes jack a dull boy


-Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrence in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining


            In the 1950’s many treatises were written to encourage the development of hobbies.  The cultivation of interests, it was said, would produce a happy individual and a healthy nation.  The proliferation of television, however, drew time and attention away from the improvement of personal talents.  This trend has continued steadily as media has become increasingly prevalent in the American landscape.  Certain television programs such as This Old House, Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting, and Monster Garage are marketed as instructional programming for hobbyists but they are most often viewed as pure entertainment.  With the exception of cooking shows, Americans rarely put the skills the have learned from TV into practical use.

            The Internet, on the other hand, has proven infinitely useful to the hobbyist.  Cyber clubs and chat rooms allow the people in North America the opportunity to connect with people of similar interest around the world.  Virtually every passion can be enhanced by information on the World Wide Web.  With the increasing availability of personal computers and high-speed connections, information, ideas and a general sense of camaraderie are now shared instantaneously among international communities of aficionados.

            In the infancy of the 21st Century, technological hobbies have reached a level of popularity that few science fiction writers could have imagined.  Podcasting and the creation of personal websites have become prevalent activities among a diverse population.  Opposing opinions are frequently posted upon the Internet.  The polarity of Web users and programmers reached substantial proportions during the 2004 Presidential Election in the United States.  Despite their position on the political spectrum, voters were united in the activity of attaining and adding to information on the Net. 

            In the United States and Canada there are relatively few hobbies that are gender specific.  Men and women are free to participate in any activity that is of interest.  Still, a division persists and certain activities are more appealing to men while others are more interesting to women.  Hobbies reflect the physical location and financial status of a person.  Regional variation in North American depends more upon climate than it does cultural heritage.  In colder areas activities such as ice fishing, sledding, and snow mobiling are popular.  In warmer climates people enjoy swimming, hiking, and miniature golf.  The diversity of pastime activities available within the United States and Canada reflects the immense diversity of the people who inhabit the North America.

            Reading is among the most respected hobbies across the continent.   The reader cultivates knowledge, exercises the mind, and expands her imagination.  Writing likewise is considered a great talent whose development is to be taken seriously.  Since 1992 the nature of reading has shifted from printed text to digital media.  While Americans continue to use books, magazines, and newspapers, the majority of their reading time is online.   Inter-personal written communication has seen a massive resurgence through electronic mail and cellular phone text messaging. 

            Downloading music and posting profiles on the Net have become controversial online pastimes.   The music industry has tried to put an end to illegal file sharing.  Thousands of arrests and millions of dollars in fines, however, have been unable to contain the growth of the peer to peer networking.

            Teenage Americans are now spending extraordinary amounts of time cultivating profiles and online friendships on the Web.  Sites such as allow individuals to construct online personalities that may or may not resemble the person they are at home.  Despite the potential for identity fraud, many friendships and romantic partnerships now begin online.



            Virtually every North American has a collection.  Hunting, gathering, and preserving specific items are games that adults and children enjoy. While youngsters are satisfied collecting pretty items such as rocks and seashells, adults generally develop collections that promise financial or intellectual rewards. Enthusiasm is the primary prerequisite for collecting.  Time, energy, and dedication are more imperative than money.  Garage sales, thrift stores, and antique malls are the hunting grounds for the collector.  From fine art to wooden buttons, collectors often become experts in their field. Local collectors know one another and regularly share information within clubs and societies.  International collectors connect through the Web and at annual conventions.

            Star Wars items, Smurfs, metal lunchboxes, nautical equipment, baseball cars, antique coins, Barbie dolls, scent bottles, grandfather clocks, postage stamps, playing cards, matchbooks and phonograph records are among thousands of items Americans collect.  It is common to collect paraphernalia related to a specific movie, superhero, or television series.  Robert and Patricia Leffler of the United States, for example, boast the world’s largest collection of Conan the Barbarian memorabilia.  They have spent over 30 years collecting 2,418 items including posters, comic books, action figures, and toy weapons. [xiii]



            Model cars, trains, and airplanes are built, collected, and driven by fathers and sons in North America.  Die Cast metal automobiles are becoming increasingly popular among collectors on account of their exquisite detail.  Die Cast cars often have opening doors and functioning steering wheels.  More expensive models have leather interior, wooden detail, and working break lights. 

            Radio controlled cars are generally powered by electricity or gas.  They often mimic high-performance street vehicles and they can reach speeds of 100 mph. 

            Model airplanes come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and capacities.  Static models are generally scaled down versions of actual airplanes. Aeromodeling, or the art of flying model airplanes, is a popular activity for men and boys. Local model airplane clubs host air shows where hobbyists compete against one another for prizes in speed and dexterity.




            Arts and crafts remain popular amongst a wide range of individuals.  Painting, drawing, and printmaking are among the most popular 2-Dimensional arts.  Woodworking, pottery, and metal smiting are common 3-D pursuits. Technological advances and the recent availability of home editing equipment, has made videography and digital photography among the most common artistic pastimes among all North Americans. 

            In the late 1970’s spray-painting walls, bridges, billboards and train cars emerged as the artistic expression of urban youth.  Graffiti soon became popular with California surf and skateboard culture.  Although graffiti is illegal across the continent, it is considered a developed art form.  Anonymous artists participate in this rebellious activity that has been featured in the MOMA and The San Francisco Art Museum of Modern Art.  

            Freestyle rapping, beatboxing, and breakdancing are creative forms that emerged from inner city gang conflict in the 1970’s.   Street competitions between rappers and dancers are called “battles.”  While Rap culture is easily criticized for glorifying drug trade and comodifying women, Hip-Hop expresses a more socially conscious voice of urban youth. 

            Musical ability is considered a great asset in North America.   Parents register their children for piano or violin lessons hoping to establish a lifelong involvement with music.  Elementary schools have mandatory music classes.

            Mesa/Boogie Amp and the Punk movement encouraged teenagers with little or no musical experience to form their own rock n’ roll bands.  Practice in suburban basements makes perfect for gritty downtown clubs.

            Karaoke culture was imported from Japan during the late 80’s making the spotlight, the microphone, and the audience accessible to all.  Karaoke bars are one of the few places, outside of church, where passionate singing is encouraged.  The spirit of good fun is a welcome alternative to a society that is critical of public performance.  

            In the information age, collecting and broadcasting music has become increasingly popular.  Through computer technology, connected individuals have access to infinite online music databases.  Streaming audio technologies transform the personal computer into an international radio receiver.  Podcasting enables individuals to produce their own radio shows and distribute them electronically through the World Wide Web.



            Amateur writers, actors, dancers, directors, and scene designers enjoy the spotlight at community theaters.   Long hours are spent after work and on weekends preparing the opening night of seasonal plays and Shakespeare in the Park performances.  Readings and poetry “slams” are regularly hosted at coffee shops allow young writers to share their work with one another.

For those who develop an interest in dance, there are a wide range of options available in most communities.   Art centers, churches, and community colleges offer lesson in ballet, tap, ballroom dancing, modern dance, and more.   Courses usually conclude with a public recital.



            Puppeteering arts became popular with hobbyist in the 1950’s.  Today many individuals and groups enjoy creating puppets, writing scripts, building scenery, and performing for local audiences.  The Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont and the Burning Man Festival in Arizona feature thousands of handmade puppets and attest to the popularity of the craft throughout the continent. 

            A Ventriloquist is puppeteer who makes a “dummy” appear to talk.  Comedic ventriloquism emerged as a part of vaudeville shows in the mid 1800’s.  Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy brought ventriloquism to the unlikely medium of radio and later made it a popular act on TV.  Every summer hundreds of these “belly-talkers” gather for a ConVENTtion near Cincinnati, Ohio at the Vent Haven Museum, “the world’s only museum dedicated to the art of ventriloquism.”


TELEVISION and FILM                                                             

            Literature, cinema, and television are popular substitutes for these sort of role-playing games of children.   Instead of becoming the heroic characters of their own playful fantasy, adults become spectators to the play of others.  The experience of becoming an astronaut or an Aztec warrior is still possible to adults but only through the observance of professional actors who are paid to play for the television or on the silver screen.  Many North Americans consider themselves film aficionados.



            At any given time American libraries and historical archives are filled with individuals who spend their free time learning.   Genealogists, history buffs, and pop culture aficionados enjoy digging through books and old papers piecing together clues from the past.  

            Amateur Astronomers can spend thousands of dollars on personal telescopes that are powerful enough to view craters on the moon.  Members of local astronomical societies gather together to view important astrological events.

            North America’s cultural materialism is balanced by a spiritualistic counter culture.  Aspiring psychics practice activities such as reading palms, stars, tarot cars, auras and crystal balls.  Psychic fairs and metaphysical conferences are held throughout the United States and Canada.  Ghost hunting clubs are available in most North American cities.



The automobile and the interstate, the airplane and the need to travel have made North Americans the most recreationally mobile people on the globe.  The Pioneering Spirit is deeply ingrained in the North American psyche.  The society has reached a level of affluence where most households can afford annual vacations to places they have never been before.  National Parks such as The Grand Canyon or The Grand Tetons are popular natural destinations.  Families with younger children enjoy traveling to Amusement Parks such as Disneyland or Six Flags.  Young adults are drawn to the action of larger cities such as New York, San Francisco, or Toronto.

The desire to revisit roots in the Old World has been popular amongst Americans since their arrival in the colonies.  Steamliners made journeys to Europe fun and frequent in the mid-19th Century.  In recent years, flying overseas for European vacations has become possible for many middle-class Americans. 

            Concurrent with the growth of international business, Americans have developed an interest in visiting more exotic portions of the world.  South and Central America have become popular American tourist destinations.  Collecting dolls, jewelry, tapestries, and other crafts from less commercialized portions of the world has become a favorite activity among American travelers who are unaccustomed to handmade goods.



            Even when they are not traveling, Americans are obsessed with the instruments of locomotion.  Vehicles that provide mobility through land, air, and water have become a part of the American family.  Names and personalities are given to cars, airplanes, and boats.  Considerable amounts of both time and money are invested into them. 

            Boats are popular among the private sector but they are rarely used for practical transportation.  Fishing boats are small, fun, and affordable recreation for many families. Speedboats and pontoon boats are common accessories at middle-class vacation homes.  Yachts and houseboats are symbols of affluence.  Boating is a popular hobby across the continent.  It often incorporates other water activities such as skiing, fishing, and tubing.

            Airplanes are property of the upper class.  On top of the obvious expenses of purchasing and maintaining a plane, one must acquire a pilot’s certificate.  In order to qualify for such a license, a person invests between $5,000 to $9,000 flight training courses.  Since the early 70's it has been possible for Americans to purchase kits for building airplanes in their own garage.

            All-Terrain-Vehicles (ATV’s) became popular with Americans in the 1980’s.  Fat wheels and a low center of gravity allows users to travel quickly over rugged land that is impossible for automobiles and motorcycles.  Farmers and hunters use ATV’s for utilitarian purposes.  Daredevils try to outdo one another at the motocross track and others simply enjoy rugged trail riding.

            Americans love their cars and wear them like shells.  The make and model of a person’s vehicle is considered a reflection of his or her personality.  Most households have at least one car.  Many families have a car for each eligible driver.  Exceptional amounts of recreation time are spent inside these personal automobiles.  Teenagers enjoy “cruising” and older adults enjoy the “Sunday drive”.  Whether circulating through downtown streets or enjoying nature through the windows of a car, Americans often drive to see and be seen.

            Custom cars are most often expressions of male identity.  Restoring antique automobiles and caring for new vehicles are popular activities for a diverse cross-section of North American men.  High performance vehicles make their debut annual at The Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto and at the United States Auto Show in Detroit.  These are two of the most well attended events on the continent.

            Hot Rods are heavily modified “vintage tin” cars that tend to be popular among the older generations.  Hot Rod enthusiasts add powerful engines, modern transmissions, and flashy paint jobs to nostalgia cars made in the period between 1945 and 1965.    Weekend meet ups, annual reunions, and noisy drag racing unite the Hot Rod community. 

            Owners of Muscle cars who tend to be younger and rougher than the fun-loving Hot Rodders.  Ford Mustangs, Chevy Impalas, and the Pontiac Trans Am’s are among the classic varieties of American muscle cars.   The age of the muscle car begins with the Pontiac GTO and introduction of the V8 engine in 1964. Vintage muscle cars are among the most desirable items within the North American landscape.  Younger muscle car enthusiasts have begun adorning these antique cars with “candy-paint”, chrome wheels, and expensive electronic accessories including DVD players and video games. 

            A Low-Rider is a truck or muscle car whose suspension system has been modified to drop the body of the car as close to the road as possible. The low rider culture began with Chicano youth and quickly attained popularity within Hip Hop culture.  In addition to Wet T-shirt contests, Low Rider Rallies include competitions for the trickiest hydraulics, flashiest paint, and loudest stereo.

            High-performance motorcycles imported from Japan are commonly known as “rice-rockets” in the United States.  The motorcycles are favored by young men who live for speed.   These cycles travel over a hundred miles an hour in organized races at drag strips and in impromptu contests between competitors on public streets.

            Over the course of the century gangs of Harley riders became known for their rowdiness, illegal activity, and general sense of lawlessness.  Bikers gradually developed an underground network of gangs and bike clubs. The American fear and fascination with Bikers has been portrayed by movies such as The Wild One starring Marlon Brando and Easy Rider with Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.

             The culture of leather and loud pipes which once belonged to the outlaw culture of biker gangs such as The Outlaws and Hell’s Angles has become the part time attire of wealthier Americans seeking a weekend escape from their daily routine.  In addition to selling motorcycles, Harley-Davidson now sells an image of rebellion.  In recent decades American women have stepped out of the “bitch seat” – the backseat on a motorcycle— onto their own Harley’s.  Motorcycle maintenance has become increasingly popular among young independent women.



            Outdoor sports that are played across the continent are basketball, golf, baseball, tennis, soccer, fencing, rowing, rugby, lacrosse, and football.  On the coast, Americans enjoy snorkeling, scuba diving, windsurfing, and the art of sunbathing.  In rivers they canoe, kayak, and whitewater raft.  Winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding are popular in Northern regions.  Ice-skating rinks are located throughout the continent allowing people in warmer climates to skate.   Hockey is the national sport of Canada where men, women, and children of all ages are passionate about the game.

            Ever since the Wright Brothers took off from Kitty Hawk, Americans have followed suit.  Hot air ballooning, parachuting, hangglidiing, soaring, and gyrocopting are among the ways hobbyists enjoy the sky

            In the mid-1990’s young adults began pushing the boundaries of already dangerous sports.  The eXtreme Games made their debut in Providence, Rhode Island in 1995 and for over a decade the ABC and ESPN have provided live coverage of the annual daredevil competitions.  As a result, skateboarding, snowboarding, whitewater rafting, caving, rock climbing, and mountain biking have become faster, trickier, wilder and more popular than ever before.  Over the past decade, many American cities have developed “play at your own risk” Xtreme BMX trails and skate parks. The Xtreme competition is balanced by a sense of camaraderie among competitors who generally consider themselves united against the mainstream.  

            The development of martial arts is popular with many American men and women. Local clubs offer lessons in Karate, Judo, Jujitsu, Aikido, and Kung Fu to prepare students for regional competitions.  Boxing clubs generally cater to men but in recent years they have begun opening their doors to women.  Regional boxing competitions pitch fights between boys young as eight.   The movie Fight Club starring Brad Pitt drew media attention to a growing culture of illegal bare-knuckles boxing.

            Although Yoga is not considered religious practice as it is in India,  it is practiced daily by many Westerners as an alternative to high impact exercise.  Recently, Pilates has  also become popular among American women. 



Hunting is a popular in both the United States and Canada.  The year is divided into seasons for deer, quail, and duck hunting.  Buffalo and Birds of Prey have strict rules regulating their hunt.  Killing or as much as possessing a feather from the American Eagle is punishable by US law.  

 In the United States of America, boys never seem to outgrow guns.  Pretend hunt games including laser tag and paint ball are popular activities for children’s birthday parties.  Gun ranges and annual gunshots allow children and adults to handle high power specialty weapons such as machine guns and Flamethrowers.  Guns and knifes are among the top collectables for American men.  Gun shows are among the nation’s most profitable events.  Michael Moore's 2002 film Bowling for Columbine exposes the popularity of recreational guns in the U.S. compared to their relative not use in Canada.



Americans love their pets.  Dogs, cats, and furry rodents are among the most common animals kept in homes across the continent.  Considerable amount of time and money is spent caring for these creatures that are usually considered part of the family.  Exotic birds, fish, reptiles are imported to North America from all corners of the globe. American pets are taught to do tricks.  Birds speak and dogs jump through hoops.  Americans train their animals to perform for competitions ranging from the incredibly serious International Dog Shows to the completely ridiculous Stupid Pet Tricks on late night television.



            In 1950 Time magazine named “Do-It-Yourself” home repair  “America’s new 50 million dollar hobby.”   Men across society continue to enjoy renovating their homes on weekends.  The television show “This Old House” has provided construction instruction for the hobbyist since 1979.   Saws, drills and other items bought at the hardware store are often referred to as toys".

            Cultivating home fashions remains a primary pastime of the American woman.  The home décor magazine Better Homes and Gardens has sold consistently to women since 1922.  In recent years knitting, needlepoint, and scrap-booking have seen a resurgence in popularity.  North American women with a strong grasp upon the corporate ladder have begun revisiting their domesticity.



            American women spend significant amounts of time cultivating their appearance.  They attend classes and read magazines to keep current with the latest fashions and methods of make–up application.   Women attend beauty workshops and hire cosmetic consultants to improve their beauty skill.

             At formal beauty contests or “pageants” women and young girls promenade across a stage in evening gowns, bikinis and high heel shoes to be judged on physical beauty.  The winner of local pageants travels to statewide then national competitions such as Miss America.  According the Guinness Book of World Records, PT Barnum organized the first international beauty pageant after staging similar contests for babies, animals, and birds.

            Weightlifters began competing against one another when the National Amateur Bodybuilders Association (NABBA) began hosting the Mr. Universe contest in 1950. Competitive bodybuilding quickly became popular throughout the world.  At the Mr. Universe Championship men are judged on muscle tone and rather than facial appearance.  Although a relatively small percentage of American men officially compete, bodybuilding is a daily activity for many North American men. 

            Ms. Universe contests were added by the NABBA in 1966 it is common at any gym to see women lifting weights.  The present “thin is in” aesthetic generally motivates women to be skinny instead of strong.  The resulting tendency is that women prefer calorie-burning activities such as aerobics, jogging, and swimming, at the gym




The Barbie Liberation Organization


On Christmas morning 1989 hundreds of children in the United States and Canada received an unexpected surprise.  Boys were horrified when their talking G.I. Joe's asked in a high-pitched voice "Let's plan our dream wedding?"  Little girls were equally confused when their Barbie dolls grumbled in a mannish tone, "Dead men tell no lies!"

The Barbie Liberation Organization, an artist-activist group headquartered in San Diego, California, bought several hundred talking G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls.  They switched the doll’s voice boxes and then returned them to toy store shelves.   Stickers were placed inside the packaging of the altered dolls instructing parents to call the local news stations.

During the following media sensation, the BLO announced their goal to disrupt the violent lessons taught by G.I. Joe and subvert the brainless materialism of taking Barbies.  Additionally, the Barbie Liberation Organization sought to expose and potentially eliminate gender-based stereotyping in toys.  Hasbro Inc., G.I. Joe’s parent company, called the stunt “ridiculous” [xiv] while Mattel, the manufactures of Barbie, did not comment on the project.  

            The Barbie Liberation Organization continues to prank the consumer market and encourages individuals all over the world to participate in the voice box switch using The Official BLO Barbie/G.I. Joe Home Surgery Instructions which are readily available on line.



The Official BLO Barbie/G.I. Joe Home Surgery Instructions













[i] Dulles, Foster Rhea.  A History of Recreation: America Learns to Play. New York: Meredith, 1965), 354.


[ii] Women's Archive, "JWABeatrice Alexander Career Beginnings," < > (15 May 2006).


[iii] Cramer, Kenneth C. “The Austin Ant House.” Notes From the Special Collections. < > (27 April 2006)


[iv] Walsh, Tim.  Timeless Toys. (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2005), 52.


[v] Hasbro website. “Monopoly Fun Facts.” 

<> (21 May 2006).


[vi] Walsh, Tim.  Timeless Toys. (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2005), 129.


[vii] Brookhaven National Laboratory. “The First Video Game: Brookhaven History.”

<> (23 May 2006).


[viii] Pilgrim, David.  The Garbage Man: Why I collect racist objects.  Jim Crow Museum Website.


[ix] Trivial Pursuit website.  The Most Popular Trivia Game in the World. < > (17 April 2006)


[x] 2003 Guinness World Records  (New York: Bantam Books, 2003),  234.


[xi] Cabbage Patch Kids website. The Legend.


(6 April 2006)


[xii]  Paravaz, D. “Action figure makers are toying with President Bush.”  Seattle Post-Intelligencer.  Monday October 20, 2003. <> (26 May 2006)


[xiii] 2003 Guinness World Records  (New York: Bantam Books, 2003), 172.


[xiv] Greenberg, Bridgette.  The BLO – Barbie Liberation Organization.   The Associated Press, San Diego. <>



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