Chicago, IL – Who knew that Chicago is a haven for inventiveness in the toy and games industry? Sure, Kunoichi has always made Chicago our home base, serving a variety of leading toy, game, and youth entertainment brands with content. But our clients are typically stationed on the East and West Coasts. The “Toys In The Hood” exhibit, currently on display at the Elmhurst Historical Museum, is a great reminder that there is a whole history of playfulness in the Windy City.

Lincoln Logs, Radio Flyer, Beanie Babies, Tinker Toys, and more owe their origins to companies and inventors in the Chicagoland Area. “Toys In The Hood” tells the story of these products and many more, focusing on toy and game inventors. Suddenly a legion of talented toy tinkerers comes to light. McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, those tiny treasures that delighted only to quickly find their way into the trash can, are designed and created by McDonald’s vendor The Marketing Store, with two offices in Chicago. Marvin Glass & Associates, Chicago native, can only be described as the inventor of the business of toy invention. Duncan Yo-Yo turned that product into an international craze.  In addition to the history lesson, the exhibit provides an interactive demonstration of the process an idea takes in becoming a toy or game.

A small exhibit, “Toys In The Hood” is nonetheless successful in capturing varying eras of toy and game manufacturing. There are products from the early 1900s on display (Lincoln Logs, Radio Flyer) nearby products from the 1970s (Weebles) and those of my own childhood, the 1990s (Stretch Armstrong’s foe VacMan!). The kids at the museum seemed to be having a great time (particularly in the play room upstairs) but the exhibit is even more fun for adults. Regardless of the attendee’s generation, it is likely they will find a half dozen or so objects from their own toy chest.

Chicago has a fantastic inventor community, and outside inventors are still important to many toy and game manufacturers, but the vast majority of ideation and production occurs at the direction of the manufacturers. In today’s marketplace, manufacturers rarely take chances on a new idea from an inventor, focusing instead on extending the offerings of perennial big brands and signing licensing agreements with dominant entertainment brands from outside toys and games. Sadly, it seems the role of inventors is being marginalized, making “Toys In The Hood” all the more compelling a story to tell. I would have personally preferred a more rounded look at the industry, but it is always fun to take a look at the little guy with the big idea.

What’s missing? Chicago was the home of Tiger Games, now part of Hasbro. Tiger was conspicuously absent, but that makes some sense considering the electronic component to the products. I can’t help wanting to see a few more displays to round out the impressive bunch. The premises of the Elmhurst Historical Museum are confining, and the exhibit makes great use of the space. It’s one of those exhibits I could never get enough of!

What was your favorite childhood toy? What defining gadgets, boxes, and objects will forever mark your youth as a golden age for toys? For me, it started with Star Wars and the Super Powers Collection from Kenner. Kenner, Hasbro, and Playmate started a wave of exciting innovation in action figures in the 1980s-1990s. Somebody build an exhibit about that!

Check out the exhibit through September 18th. Find more information here.

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