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Preface When I was a kid, I broke the child labor laws. Or, rather, my Uncle Jack did. At the age of twelve, I began working twenty hours a week during school vacations in the warehouse of Uncle Jack’s business, Mutual Distributing Company, located in Omaha, Nebraska. By the time I was fourteen, I illegally worked full-time, forty-four hours a week, and I continued to do so every summer and at Christmas time through high school and college. Saturday mornings, too, eight o’clock until twelve. Besides providing a nice income for a teenager, the job had two key effects on me. First, loading and unloading freight, packing and unpacking boxes alongside workingmen who at most had graduated from high school but who had a kind of commonsense wisdom, drew me to the lives of ordinary folk like them and sparked my eventual interest in social history. Second, the experience got me intrigued by the concept of play. Mutual Distributing, you see, was a toy wholesaling business. Uncle Jack bought toys (no bicycles or sporting goods) from manufacturers and sold them to small stores in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, places such as drugstores and corner groceries that kept a limited inventory and had no space to store goods. Big-box establishments , e-trade, and the disappearance of independent retail enterprises have made wholesalers such as Mutual Distributing outmoded today, but in the 1950s and 1960s, Uncle Jack did a good business. My job in a toy warehouse enabled me to be “present at the creation ” of such now-classic playthings as the hula hoop, Frisbee, Barbie , whiffle ball, and more. It was an era before electronics came to dominate toy operations, so most commercial playthings were not complicated or expensive. Unconnected to a story line and unrestricted by inflexible rules or software, most of the toys could be used in both intended and unintended ways. Monopoly money was a necessity to the Parker Brothers game, but it also could serve countless purposes unrelated to the board game. A cap gun could enable its xi owner to play a specific role as, say, Hopalong Cassidy, but that owner also could use it for other roles such as a soldier or a space explorer. A teddy bear could be a pet, a friend, or a guest at a tea party. The point is that many formal toys promoted improvisation and stretched a child’s imagination in a manner that, unlike today’s electronic toys, was not ruled by a media backstory. Before I began working in earnest for Mutual Distributing, I spent most of my out-of-school time with three other boys in my urban neighborhood. When weather permitted—and sometimes when it was inclement—we gathered outdoors, abjuring games and other indoor amusements, to engage in our own kinds of play. We roamed nearby vacant lots, taking roles for ourselves as soldiers, jungle explorers , or visitors to another planet. Often we embellished these pastimes with self-fashioned accoutrements: sticks serving as rifles, piledup rocks serving as a fort, or discarded planks serving as a river raft. We also invented special rules for shooting baskets and a competition involving kicking a football. Mostly, however, we played “scrub,” a bat-and-ball game with baseball equipment and a backyard ball field but playable with as few as three or four participants. I once joined a Little League baseball team, and I played in a Sunday morning basketball league to comply with my parents’ desire to enrich my boyhood with some adult-guided structured play, but I much preferred the informal competitions of our neighborhood gang. With these stimuli swirling around me—the toys of Mutual Distributing Company; the fascination with the social history of ordinary people; the recollections of playing with Tim, Tom, and Bob (note the all-male retinue)—I decided to write a history of children’s play in America. But from the beginning, I wanted the project to be different. Most historical inquiries into the nature of children’s play—and by “play” I mean amusing activities that have behavioral, social, intellectual , and physical rewards—have examined activities and objects constructed by adults for the benefit of children. As a result, formal games, mass-produced toys, organized sports, and the like have been identified as the principal components of girls’ and boys’ diversions. Yet, as anthropologists and psychologists know, children have always cultivated their own underground of unstructured and self-structured play, which they did...


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