In this age of sharing every idle thought online, younger generations might find it hard to believe that publicly documenting one’s own life wasn’t always the norm. The most ancient forms of memory were kept in the oral tradition, and the keepers of records were individuals entrusted with the task of memorizing details and transmitting them through recitation to others. As writing systems developed and literacy rose across the globe, the written record became the rule (and oftentimes, entire groups of people were left off the pages). During the mid-20th century, however, historians realized the value of preserving stories absent from written history and began to orchestrate and record interviews to capture the stories and memories of people with interesting life experiences and customs. In the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play at The Strong, several archival collections hold fascinating oral history recordings and transcriptions related to play.
In 1987, Dorothy Washburn, a museum consultant, developed a “public involvement” oral history project. This project utilized the museum’s expansive doll collection as stimuli to prompt memories from women who had played with dolls between 1900 and 1940. With funding from the New York State Council on the Arts, Washburn conducted a four-month series of interviews with 97 area women. Participants were prompted in front of a display containing a selection of dolls from the decade during which they had played with these toys. They identified dolls similar or identical to their own past playthings and described how they played with them. Many participants also brought their own dolls to the museum and were able to share family photographs for the museum’s reference. This Doll Oral History Project provided useful information for the museum, and the participants became aware of how the ordinary
items which they possessed had much to tell about history.