In 1917, a 21-year-old Italian immigrant living in Chicago used
some of his meager savings to rent some woodworking tools and a
small workshop. There he built a simple wooden wagon and named it
the Liberty Coaster, after the statue that had welcomed him to
America four years earlier.
That wagon would eventually become the Radio Flyer, the iconic
red wagon that has been one of the most enduring toys in
That's just one of Chicago's homegrown connections to the toy
world explored in Elmhurst History Museum's new exhibit, "Toys in the
Hood," opening April 26.
The exhibit unearths the Chicagoland roots of dozens of toys and
games from Lincoln Logs, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright's son, to
Operation, prototyped by a student at University of Illinois and
sold for $500 to the Chicago-based Marvin Glass toy company in
Kids can become "product testers" in the second-floor playroom,
which is packed with current-day models of many of the toys
featured the exhibit. They can play UNO (bought and mass-marketed
by a Joliet funeral parlor owner), Mousetrap and Rock 'em Sock 'em
Robots (both patented by the Marvin Glass company), and become a
life-sized version of "Cavity Sam," the Operation frontman poked
and prodded by millions since the game premiered in 1965.
"I think there's an expectation coming to (a history
museum) that you're just going to see some dusty stuff underneath
cases and read some plaques," says Lance Tawzer, the
museum's curator. "We knew that if you're going to have kids
walking through the exhibit and learning about toys, we were going
to have to give them something to play with."
The museum pulled from its own collection (which includes a
curious pair of Kangru Springshus, a sort of pogo-stick sandal,
from 1913), and borrowed from other regional history museums and
several local toy collectors.
"It's just fabulous," John Spinello, who invented Operation in
1965 as an engineering student at the University of Illinois.
"People have been playing with games like mine for years, but might
not even know that they come from Chicago. It's a little slice of
The exhibit, like the museum, is free to the public. Its summer
programming kicks off in earnest with the Toy Fair Extravaganza on
June 26, where kids can enter a Lincoln Log building contest, play
the games and meet Spinello, who lives in Bloomingdale, and other
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