Mr. Potato Head I love you!

by Shannon McKinney, Sales Associate in the Indiana Store

Would I be cheating to include Mr. Potato Head as a toy of the 1960s? I don’t think so. While the classic toy was originally released to consumers in 1952 (and we chose to place Mr. Potato Head in the 1950s section of the Indiana Store), it wasn’t until the 1960s that a version similar to the one we know today reached the market.

The original concept for Mr. Potato Head permitted children to engage in an activity typically scorned by parents — playing with their food! More than 60 years ago, George Lerner came up with the idea for a toy that would include a set of accessories for children to attach to real fruits and vegetables, thus creating a “funny-face man.” At the time, though, post-WWII sentiments about conserving food lingered in many people’s minds, and the notion of putting perfectly good food to waste seemed controversial. Lerner ultimately found a cereal company that agreed to buy the rights to the toy for $5,000, planning to include Mr. Potato Head’s plastic accessories in cereal boxes as prizes.

The Hassenfeld Brothers, who founded the toy company that would later become known as Hasbro, realized that Mr. Potato Head had a greater potential than simply residing in cereal boxes and, in 1952, they purchased the rights to the toy. On April 30, 1952, Mr. Potato Head had the honor of becoming the first toy advertised on television. The version sold throughout the 1950s was actually a kit and only contained the components necessary to build Mr. Potato Head, including parts such as the eyes, nose, ears, mouth and a pipe. (More on that pipe later!)

Finally, in 1964, Hasbro’s new release of the toy included a plastic potato on which to place the accessories. Why? Well, much of the reason was that the toy industry had introduced new safety regulations. In order to accessorize an actual fruit or vegetable, the plastic components had to have sharp prongs on the back of them. With the introduction of a plastic potato, the components became more child-friendly.

Safety regulations and cultural shifts over the years have further altered Mr. Potato Head’s appearance — in the 1970s, he grew in size so that his plastic pieces would be less of a choking hazard and, in 1987, he voluntarily surrendered his pipe to the U.S. Surgeon General in support of anti-tobacco campaigns.

Of course, it would be difficult to write about Mr. Potato Head without giving at least a passing nod to his supporting role in Pixar’s three Toy Story films. And today, many variations of Mr. Potato Head (and his family of spuds) exist, including a Wonder Woman Mrs. Potato Head and a Darth Vader Mr. Potato Head. Each new variety entering the market continues to breathe life into the classic toy. It’s doubtful that he and his family will be going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

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Building a Mastodon

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When Mike Smith arrived at the Indiana State Museum before the new building opened in 2002, he had no idea just how extensive his skill at exhibit design would become. In addition to his museum work, Smith held studio space at the Stutz Building for nearly 10 years as an abstract steel sculptor. Turns out, his background in fine arts was to be put to the test!

Today, Mike Smith is one of an elite group of people in the world to have mounted the real-bone skeleton of a three-ton mastodon; a real Ice Age giant. His background in welding and steelwork was the perfect combination to take on the project of mounting the 292 bones that make up this mammal.

Prior to Smith’s arrival at the museum, huge bones were discovered in the muck of a peat farm in northern Indiana. It was 1998 and, once the Buesching family realized what they had, the mastodon bones were carefully removed by a team from Indiana University-Purdue University Ft. Wayne, and eventually brought to the Indiana State Museum. Incredibly, more than 80 percent of the skeleton was recovered. A radiocarbon date showed the mastodon, named “Fred” in honor of the senior Buesching, to be 13,020 to 13,760 years old.

Ron Richards, the museum’s Chief Curator for Science and Technology is excited about the mastodon, and is finally able to recover from what he refers to as “separation anxiety” following the 1933 loss of a major find.

Richards explained how then-curator Vern Patty responded to a ‘mastodon call’ in northern Indiana. The skeleton was excavated and brought back to the museum, but then the owner contested rights to it, took the matter to court and won, eventually selling the Indiana mastodon to the Denver Science Museum, where it still resides.

“All these years of working in the field and we had nothing complete like this to show for it … until now,” said Richards.

Another issue museums often face, Richards says, is that key parts of a skeleton are often missing or in bad shape. The head, for example, can be broken by heavy equipment when it is initially found in a farmer’s field, etc. Then, when the mount is made, a museum might ‘borrow parts,’ turning mounts into a composite of several animals.

The Buesching mastodon is thus a prized specimen because more than 80 percent of it is real bone from a single beast, not casts like the majority of mounted specimens you see at many museums. Richards adds that Fred is a work of art, with gently curving steel supports and each bone of the spinal column mounted “like a gemstone.”

While it was decidedly less expensive to mount the mammal in-house at the Indiana State Museum, this was an unusual course of action, and dollars still had to be raised to pay for preservation and mounting. In response, museum leadership launched the creative “Buy-A-Bone” campaign allowing the public to sponsor individual bones or give them as gifts. In return, sponsors received an actual bone fragment from one of the museum’s many digs, and a certificate of authenticity from chief curator Richards. Support has come from a wide cross section. For example, one of the bones was sponsored by an elementary school “penny drive”; the assembly process received a financial boost from a grant by the LDI 100th Anniversary Celebration Cultural Partnership.

Now that Fred is complete and in place in the museum’s Nina Mason Pulliam gallery, the soft-spoken Smith is “mostly relieved,” he says, “and somewhat proud, but also thankful for the help from several staff members.” His family and friends are bragging about him on social media. And while Smith took a brief moment to bask in the glow of success, he quickly moved on to work on other museum exhibits.

Meanwhile, Fred stands proudly, awaiting the November opening of Indiana’s Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons which explores how the Indiana State Museum has excavated more such burial sites than any other institution in the state. The bones reveal what the museum learned about their lives and their deaths in Indiana, some 13,000 years ago.

**For timed-release video of a portion of the mounting process, please visit our YouTube page:

What is cool?

by Michelle Padilla, Museum Editor / Content Manager

Well, according to my Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition:

cool (kool) adj. *8 [Slang] very good, pleasing, etc.; excellent

A small amount of online research suggests that the term “cool” used in the slang sense above, was born sometime in the late 19th or early 20th century within black American culture. Although the first recorded instance doesn’t show up until the 1940s. But by the 1950s, “cool” became the buzzword of the Beat Generation, then was used by hippies in the ‘60s and eventually embraced by teenagers everywhere! It is one of the few examples of slang that has maintained its popularity across generations.

James Dean ... the epitome of cool.James Dean, 1955. James Dean® is a trademark of James Dean Inc., licensed by CMG Worldwide, Inc. www.JamesDean.com

James Dean … the epitome of cool.
James Dean, 1955. James Dean® is a trademark of James Dean Inc., licensed by CMG Worldwide, Inc. http://www.JamesDean.com

So that’s all academic and everything, but it doesn’t really say what makes something cool. One of our current exhibits at the Indiana State Museum is Eternal James Dean. For many, Dean represents the epitome of cool — a good-looking young guy in a leather jacket leaning very nonchalantly against a wall seemingly without a care in the world. But cool is so subjective. You know … one person’s cool is another person’s cheese.

For me, “cool” is creative, edgy, thought-provoking, surprising, fun. And often, I just use it to describe something I like. Here is a short list of some things that I think are cool: The Beatles, Cirque du Soleil, Will Ferrell, hikes in the woods, Michelle Obama, almost anything by Stephen King, London, Smart cars, greyhounds (the dogs), the Muppets, Rene Magritte, Sting, Pixar films, dark chocolate.

I know your list would be way different than mine. And so, in an effort to define cool, the Indiana State Museum is going to attempt to assemble a Dictionary of Cool! We will compile this dictionary from what you tell us you think is cool. Look for blog, Facebook and Twitter posts asking for what you think is cool.

Let’s start now … today, Jan. 18, would be A.A. Milne’s 131st birthday. You probably know Mr. Milne best as the creator of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. In the 1960s, Disney started producing animated shorts featuring Pooh and friends. As you well know, Disney has produced many Prince Charmings, evil stepmothers, loveable sidekicks and heart-melting characters since the 1920s. In your opinion, who is the coolest Disney character?

Is it a solid? A liquid? It’s Silly Putty!

by Shannon McKinney, Sales Associate in the Indiana Store

As a kid, one of those thrilling, childish moments came about upon my discovery of Silly Putty and its amazing properties. It’s not quite a solid, not quite a liquid, and its uses are nearly endless. For those of you who are old enough to remember when newspaper ink was petroleum-based, you probably remember experimenting with Silly Putty’s ability to lift the ink from the page, creating a perfect mirror image of the text or pictures when pressed against them. Unfortunately for this particular experiment, it is no longer likely to work, as newspaper printing has shifted to the use of non-transferable inks.

But what else can Silly Putty do?

Silly Putty Frosty! Ain't he cute!

Silly Putty Frosty! Ain’t he cute!

Let’s back up a minute and first discuss a bit about Silly Putty’s history. Did you know that it was developed during World War II? The war in the Pacific Theater, where the U.S. had been importing its rubber, created massive rubber shortages and a significant demand for an alternative thanks to rubber’s vital military uses. In the process of attempting to develop a synthetic rubber, scientists created what would come to be known as Silly Putty. At the time, no one could quite think of a practical use for the substance.

Everything changed in 1949 — four years after the war had ended — when toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter placed the bouncing putty in her toy catalog at the recommendation of an advertising executive named Peter Hodgson Sr. Hodgson soon came up with the name “Silly Putty” and, beginning in 1950, the toy became a national hit. Ever since, it has been a favorite among youth and adults alike.

Silly Putty Frosty has melted!

Silly Putty Frosty has melted!

Back to Silly Putty’s uses. The toy is both practical and fun. Astronauts on Apollo 8 took it to the moon to ensure that their tools would be secure in zero gravity. As a toy, it bounces, stretches, tears and shatters, depending on the whims of the user. And these days, you can even purchase “thinking putties” with interesting, unique properties that the original does not possess, such as magnetism and the ability to glow in the dark.

Regardless of whether you purchase the original, pale-pink putty that we carry in the Indiana Store or the newer, more expensive thinking putties, you are sure to enjoy playing with the substance and experimenting with its different uses.

Wherein we learn why the Limberlost now abounds with deer, but Mrs. Porter never saw any

by Curt Burnette, Limberlost Program Developer/Naturalist

It is easy to imagine the mighty Limberlost swamp would have been brimming with wildlife during the years Gene Stratton-Porter wandered about it, recording her observations and taking photographs. And, in the case of many types of wildlife, this would have been true. However, other kinds of wildlife are more abundant now than they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Believe it or not, some were already gone or disappearing even during Gene’s time.

It is quite common now to see white-tailed deer crossing our local roads, in fields or back yards or dead along highways. If anything, parts of Indiana and some of the eastern United States are overrun with deer, even in suburbs and cities. Can you imagine a time when there were no deer here at all? Although it does not seem possible, it is true.

Photo taken at the Loblolly Marsh by Willy De Smet, Friends of the Limberlost board member.

Photo taken at the Loblolly Marsh by Willy De Smet, Friends of the Limberlost board member.

Deer were abundant when the first settlers began arriving in the early 1800s, but were so heavily hunted during the 19th century that the last deer was reported in our state in 1893. For the next 41 years, there were basically no deer in Indiana but for the occasional stray from a surrounding state! As I wander the Limberlost State Historic Site these days, I see deer or deer tracks everywhere I go. Travel back to when Gene was wandering these same grounds more than 100 years ago; she would never have seen a deer or their tracks.

In 1934, the Division of Fish & Game (now known as the Division of Fish & Wildlife) began reintroducing white-tailed deer into seven counties. By 1951, the deer population had recovered well enough to allow limited hunting. Nowadays, hunting is allowed throughout the state and deer season is a joy to many Hoosier hunters. Hunting fees are also critical to managing and maintaining Indiana wildlife populations and habitats.

There were other animals that were formerly present in the Limberlost but were gone by Gene’s time. The hunting party from which Limber Jim got himself lost in the early 1800s could have encountered wolves and bear, but Gene would not have. Another animal both Limber Jim, in his day, and I, at the present, could see are beaver. By Gene’s time, they had been trapped almost to extinction, but like the deer, they have been reintroduced and are now common. Wild turkey were also once plentiful in Indiana but disappeared. They too have been brought back successfully through our conservation efforts and are found in today’s Limberlost, but not Gene’s.

One animal that we know Gene encountered frequently is so rare today it is classified as endangered in Indiana. In her writings, Gene mentions how common the massasauga rattlesnake (the swamp rattler) was in the area. Now, they are pretty much found only in a few protected spots in northern Indiana such as state parks. In the Limberlost of the past, Gene and other residents were very concerned about the bite of a rattlesnake, but that’s not the case today. Today’s concern is the collision of a deer along the road instead of the bite from a rattlesnake. Times sure have changed.

James Dean: The People’s Choice

by Katherine Gould, Associate Curator of Cultural History

Tonight is the kick-off to awards show season with the broadcast of the 39th People’s Choice Awards. Soon to follow are the Critics Choice Movie Awards, the Golden Globe Awards, the Producers Guild of America Awards, the Directors Guild of America Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the Writers Guild of America Awards, the Film Independent Spirit Awards, and finally the Academy Awards. Did I miss any?

The thing with all of these awards and accolades is that they are a tally of the judgment of industry insiders. But the People’s Choice Awards is different, in that it’s a reflection of the tastes of the general public. It is more a fan celebration of pop culture celebrity than recognition for professional accomplishment. But the People’s Choice Awards have only been around since 1975. Prior to that, what about the opinion of the people who actually go to see the movies? What about the fans?

East of Eden poster

East of Eden poster

In 1955, an audience award poll, conceived of by the Motion Picture Theater Owners’ Organization, took place in more than 8,000 theaters across the country. Over 14 million ticket buyers participated to vote for what they thought were the best performances of 1955 for films released before Sept. 30. For his performance in East of Eden, James Dean was voted the Audience Award for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor. Other winners included Jennifer Jones for Best Performance by an actress and Mr. Roberts for Best Picture. At a banquet on Dec. 6, 1955, Dean’s costar Natalie Wood accepted the statuette, the “Audie,” on his behalf.

James Dean’s Audience Award trophy for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor.

James Dean’s Audience Award trophy for Best Performance by a Motion Picture Actor.

Now, this award is pretty significant because fans chose him over other well-known Hollywood actors with starring roles that year including Marlon Brando, Jimmy Steward, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra. One of the other categories that fans were able to vote on was Most Promising New Actor. That went to Tab Hunter for his performance in Battle Cry. Dean could have been considered for that since East of Eden was his first starring role in a motion picture but fans instead chose him for best overall.

One could argue that the tragedy of his death on Sept. 30 and the release of Rebel Without a Cause in October elevated his star and influenced public opinion of him. However, his subsequent Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for best actor seem to validate the public’s opinion: James Dean, for a short time, was considered by many to be the best.

To see Dean’s Audience Award trophy and other film-related artifacts, visit Eternal James Dean now through June 2, 2013.

Curious about the 1940s

by Shannon McKinney, Sales Associate in the Indiana Store

One of my earliest memories of my curiosity landing me into trouble was a time when I was around 3 or 4 years old. My mother and I had spent weeks practicing calling 911 in case of an emergency, but each time we practiced, she disconnected the telephone. One day, while she was watching TV in the living room, I came to the conclusion that I needed to practice for real this time. I wanted to know what the people on the other end would sound like and the kinds of questions they would ask, so with the phone happily connected and fully functioning, I dialed 911 and calmly informed the operator that my mommy was dying. Fortunately, no one came to the house to “save” her. I’m sure that after I dialed, my mother called them back to let them know that everything was all right, and her daughter was simply indulging her curiosity.

curious_georgeIn one way or another, I believe all children are able to relate to Curious George’s adventures. The experience I just detailed somewhat reflects when Curious George once accidentally dialed the fire department, but unlike the outcome of my story, Curious George ended up in prison for his actions. Thank goodness that wouldn’t happen in real life to a curious little child (or monkey)!

Out of all of the products that we currently carry in our 1940s decade section in the Indiana Store, the Curious George books and related merchandise have, perhaps, the most compelling history behind them. Nearly every adult alive today likely remembers reading Curious George at some point. However, many people might not be aware of the fact that the story of the mischievous little monkey has a connection to the Nazi-occupied Europe of the 1940s.

Both Margret Rey (born Margarete Elisabeth Waldstein) and Hans Augusto (H.A.) Rey, the authors of the popular children’s books, were born in Hamburg, Germany, around the turn of the 20th century. Their birthplace was especially significant considering they were also both Jewish; anti-Semitism in Europe reached its greatest and most terrible height when the Nazis rose to power in the years leading up to World War II. The Reys married in Brazil in 1935 before moving to Paris, France, soon after. It quickly became clear to them that Paris would not remain safe from Hitler’s forces, and mere hours before the Germans invaded the city in 1940, the Reys fled Paris on homemade bicycles. Among their few possessions? Five manuscripts — one of which was Curious George. Eventually, the Reys reached New York and were able to publish Curious George in 1941.

Since then, Curious George has appeared in a number of areas of the media, including a 2006 film starring Will Ferrell as The Man with the Yellow Hat and a subsequent PBS children’s show based on the books. The books themselves have sold over 30 million copies and have been translated into several different languages. If the Reys had been unable to escape Nazi-occupied Paris, it is very likely that the Curious George stories would have never become the beloved icon of childhood that they are today.

For further reading, see the following sites:
Houghton Mifflin Books: Curious About George?
PBS Parents: The Reys and Curious George