IDEAS: You write that postwar suburban home design sought to encourage children’s creative play, too.
OGATA: Parents in the middle class, lower middle class in the postwar era are spending a lot more time with their kids. Their kids had areas in the house that are understood as theirs, or outside of their house, that are for them. So part of the consumer-oriented literature of Levittown is, “You are doing this for your children. You are moving out there so that they can have access to this grassy shared space.”
IDEAS: How much were the people advertising these new ways of living drawing from actual research?
OGATA: They are very much aware of the psychological literature....Some of the creativity studies that become really strong in the early 1960s very much find their way into the architectural literature....There are seminars for training teachers, there are pamphlets written by psychologists and teachers: “How to encourage creativity in your [students].” They’re being put out by the major teacher’s unions.
IDEAS: You mentioned that the toy company Creative Playthings even had a psychological research department. Was this common?
OGATA: I don’t think that Mattel was doing this, but Playskool did, Creative Playthings did....I found the catalog for Playskool...and at the back of the pamphlet, there was a list of studies.
IDEAS: Were the toy companies using this information to pressure parents into buying certain toys?
OGATA: It isn’t so much about parents, in a one-dimensional way, reading an ad that says: “If you want creative kids, you’ll get this toy.” That is there, but it’s also about citizenship, it’s also [that] being a good parent is an important thing to do for your country....[That’s] very strong in the postwar, ’50s and ’60s, and after that I think the idea of creativity loses some of those intense Cold War associations. By the ’70s...
IDEAS: It’s more about realizing individual potential.
OGATA: Yes, it’s about “what’s good for children.”
IDEAS: There’s a lot of pressure today to provide kids with the right environment to nurture their creativity. Did writing this history give you any insight that might be helpful for parents?
OGATA: I think that by identifying the rhetoric [around creativity], you can say, “This is a value, this is not a truth.”...And to recognize that there is a system at work is already a useful way to think: “What do I mean? Why do I have this expectation of my child, or of myself?”
Rebecca Onion is a writer and historian living in Philadelphia. She runs Slate’s history blog, The Vault.