Margaret Woodbury was born on March 20, 1897 to John Charles Woodbury and Alice Motley Woodbury of Rochester, New York. (Her parents did not give Margaret a middle name, and she was baptized as “Margaret Woodbury” at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.) In 1898, Alice purchased Althea Cottage in Kennebunk Beach, Maine, where the family would spend every summer season from May through October. The Woodbury family spent much of their social time with the Motleys. At age 5, Margaret received a bisque-head doll made by the J.D. Kestner doll factory in Germany—later, clippings from Margaret’s first haircut were fashioned into the doll’s wig. This doll, Mabel, was Margaret’s favorite, accompanying her on many childhood excursions across the globe.
The Woodburys began to travel extensively when their daughter was school-aged. At age 8, Margaret went on her first major journey with her parents to Japan. In 1906, Alice, Margaret, and two aunts visited England, France, and the Netherlands. On an eight-month long trip in 1907 and 1908, the Woodburys traveled around the world to Japan, China, Egypt, and across Europe. These early years of travel significantly impacted Margaret’s propensity to collect, as the family frequently obtained keepsakes and souvenirs. Margaret carried a small bag in which she was allowed to keep her dolls and toys for the trips, and to which she would add anything else she acquired on the way. (She later wrote, “Consequently, my fondness for small objects grew.”) The Woodburys spent summers in Maine and winters in Santa Barbara, California. Margaret attended the Columbia Preparatory School for Girls in Rochester, and the Gamble School for Girls in California. She also had various private tutors in foreign languages, music, history, and drawing. She enjoyed golf, tennis, swimming, and horseback riding.
Margaret first met Homer Strong, a distant cousin of her grandfather’s former partner, in 1914. Homer, 22 years her senior, was regarded as a fine gentleman; he ran a tool and steel supply business and was a trained lawyer. His interests included agriculture, gardening, philately, beekeeping, and book collecting. They were engaged in March 1920 and wed in Kennebunkport, Maine, on September 9, 1920. Margaret and Homer’s only child, Barbara, was born in October 1921. Barbara experienced many of the same luxuries as her mother had, including international travel and upper class social events.
Margaret, an accomplished golfer, had trained under golf pro Walter Hagen as a teenager. She won many titles and set women’s records at Oak Hill and surrounding country clubs. Margaret competed in women’s archery events and was an avid bowler. Throughout her life, she volunteered for the Red Cross, participated in service events, and donated money to schools, churches, and hospitals. She was active in many Rochester community groups. Margaret’s mother Alice died in 1933, bequeathing Margaret a $500,000 trust. Her father John died in 1937, leaving $1.5 million, mostly in Kodak stock, to Margaret.
In 1937, the Strongs moved from their home on Culver Road in Rochester to Allens Creek Road in Pittsford, where they purchased a 30-room mansion from Alvah Strong, originally called Twin Beeches. Margaret and Homer renamed the estate to Tuckaway Farm. The Strongs grew flowers, sculpted gardens, and hosted hundreds of wild ducks on their property. The Strongs often hosted social groups at their home, and Margaret kept out a guestbook to encourage visitors to sign and record any impressions they had of their visits. Margaret belonged to more than 40 clubs, including social, athletic, patriotic, and hobby clubs.
Following the losses of her daughter in 1946 and husband in 1958, Margaret channeled her energy into collecting. She had previously inherited her mother’s large Japanese artifact collection and her father’s coin and medal collections, and already owned many old dolls, antique toys, and other decorative items. Margaret frequented auctions, antique shows, and dealers. A member of several American hobbyist clubs (including the United Federation of Doll Clubs, the Doll Study Club of Boston, the National Doll and Toy Collectors’ Club, and the Doll Collectors of America), Margaret opened her home to not only fellow club members but for community groups to sell tickets for fundraisers.
For nearly two decades, Margaret entertained the idea of turning her collections into a museum. Her assemblages of dolls, dollhouses, Japanese artifacts, sailors' valentines, and miniatures had roots based on her early childhood and travels. Toys, decorative objects, and other themes, like windmills and bookplates, developed based on her own interests. Margaret eventually added extra wings to the Tuckaway Farm house to accommodate her collections so that others could see them on display. (She loved hearing what others thought about her items, especially exclamations such as “Oh, I had a doll like that!”) She wanted to create a “Museum of Fascination.” Themed rooms in her mansion and expansion buildings exhibited segments of her collections, and she documented her objects with the assistance of her secretary. In June 1968, Margaret created a museum corporation and received a provisional charter from the New York State Board of Regents.
Margaret Woodbury Strong passed away at home on July 17, 1969. At the time of her death, she was the largest individual shareholder of Kodak stock in the world, thanks to her parents’ early investments. In her will, she provided for the transfer of her collections and estate to the museum corporation and entrusted her executors to determine how best to use her collections for a “Museum of Fascination.” (She chose that title, as she wrote earlier, because “Collecting has been, and is, fascinating.”)
The museum foundation hired expert assessors to appraise the items at Margaret’s estate. Sixteen professionals spent more than a year inventorying, examining, and appraising the nearly half-million objects in her collections. The corporation was tasked with determining the museum’s future, such as its mission and endowments. The expert consultants that they hired agreed that the greatest cluster of items in Margaret’s collections were those that implied play and imagination. While the dolls, toys, and play artifacts were the strength and heart of her collections, professionals at the time did not think that they were “serious” enough to be the foundation for an educational museum.
Instead, the consultants and museum corporation concluded that the museum’s mission would be to explore and interpret the cultural development and everyday life in the U.S. in the post-industrial age. The museum utilized many of the mass-produced, decorative items from Margaret’s existing collections, but it further acquired home furnishings and household equipment to portray the impact of changing technologies on the American home. The Strong mansion in Pittsford could not be zoned for commercial use, and the museum corporation located a plot of land in downtown Rochester to acquire as the site for the new museum. Following more than a decade of careful cataloging, planning, and building, the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum opened to the public in October 1982, offering educational programs, innovative exhibits, and study collections. Eventually, the museum realized it could not sustain such a broad mission indefinitely. Following an intensive period of research, planning, and expansion, in 2003, the museum refined its mission to one closer to Margaret’s original intent. The treasure trove of dolls, toys, and other materials related to play became the focus of the museum, exploring the cultural history of play and how it encourages learning, creativity, and discovery.