The Magic of Empty Boxes

There’s a box in the National Toy Hall of Fame.  No, it’s not the X-box.  It’s another kind of box, one that kids have enjoyed for generations.  This box requires no wires or batteries.  It has no instruction manual.  It is never out of stock, and you can usually get one for free.  

 It’s the humble cardboard box.  Imagine that.  As a matter of fact, imagination has a lot to do with the success of the latest honoree.  It is “that empty box of possibilities,” according to Christopher Bensch, the chief curator of the Strong Museum in Rochester, New York.

There are now 68 members of the Toy Hall of Fame.  According to the museum, these are toys that are widely recognized and have enjoyed popularity over multiple generations. In addition to the cardboard box, enshrined in the Hall are such classics as alphabet blocks, Barbie, the Candy Land game, checkers, Crayola crayons, Duncan yo-yos, the Erector set, Etch a Sketch, the Frisbee, G. I. Joe, Hula Hoops, jack-in-the-box, jacks, jigsaw puzzles, the jump rope, Legos, Lincoln Logs, marbles, Mr. Potato Head, Monopoly, Play-Doh, Radio Flyer wagons, Raggedy Ann, the rocking horse, roller skates, Scrabble, Silly Putty, Slinky, the teddy bear, Tinkertoys, Tonka trucks, the View-Master, and many others. 

A good toy is a learning tool that cultivates creativity.   But that’s not what the kids of my old neighborhood were thinking when we made regular checks around the back door of the Standard Grocery.  We just wanted a good-sized empty box.  It made a convincing cave in the corner of the backyard or a prison for a bad-guy cowboy or a hurdle to be jumped by imaginary horses.  It could be a barrel, too, to tumble us down Niagara Falls which in our town was a hill at the end  of the block.  

Who hasn’t built a store out of a cardboard box?  Or a house? Or a fort?   With wheels drawn on the side, a sturdy box can be a car.  With small arms as wings, it can take flight.  A few painted portholes will allow it to float on any imaginary ocean.  Equip it with a paper periscope and it can dive beneath the sea.  With a little imagination, kids can reign over cardboard castles.  Even the sky isn’t the limit.  Long before Apollo 11, children made regular flights to the moon in cardboard spaceships.  

What was once inside the box doesn’t matter.  It could have been a TV set or a refrigerator or a chest of drawers.  Maybe it was even a toy.  Bensch says, “I think every adult has had that disillusioning experience of picking what they think is a wonderful toy for a child, and then finding the kid playing with the box.”  

As I think back, we kids were early recyclers.  We hardly ever threw a container away.  It was a bit boring to receive new shoes as a gift, but the shoebox was a different story.  It was a safe where we kept aggies and cats-eye marbles.  It was a house with a removable roof or one-half of a pair of snowshoes.  

A cigar box was highly prized.  It made a robust container that qualified it to carry heavy gems found in rock gardens.  It was the walls of a miniature city, a comfy bed for a doll, or the home of a captured frog.  

Yes, the empty box deserves its place in the Toy Hall of Fame.  

Walking the toy aisles recently, I noticed a battery-powered car that a child can drive on the sidewalk.  It’s pink and has a real FM radio.  It’s pretty neat.  On top of that, it comes in a huge and sturdy cardboard box.  It must be three feet wide and five feet deep.  What a great box.  Just imagine the possibilities.