Retro Fails: 10 Dangerous Toys Alarmingly Given to Children
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 10 July 2015.
By Debra Kelly, Urban Ghosts Media, 10 July 2015.
Today, the world is full of warning labels and safety information. Nothing makes it to the shelves without being thoroughly tested, re-tested, and tested again. But that wasn’t always the case, and there are many dangerous toys from years gone. Some not only look horrifying, but led to an incredible number of accidents. Others, meanwhile, used materials in their construction that are now known to be highly hazardous. Retro Fails examines 10 alarming examples.
1. Chemistry Sets
Image: Joe Mabel
Today, chemistry sets are the picture of responsibility. They’re so responsible, in fact, that some of them are even sold without any chemicals whatsoever. For the children of the ’40s and ’50s, however, that wasn’t always the case.
Some of the first chemistry sets go back to the 1840s, and many were assembled in England and Germany. Most included things like measuring spoons, a mortar and pestle, scales and balances, and in some cases even an alcohol lamp or a burner. Some of the earliest chemistry sets included elements like uranium and uranium dust, and sodium cyanide, which can dissolve gold. Potassium nitrate was often present, too, used to make gunpowder and sodium hydroxide, which can leave some pretty severe burns.
By the 1950s, there was a certain can-do attitude toward solving the world’s problems. And without a doubt, a significant number of professional chemists and Nobel Prize winners were born on the day they opened their first chemistry sets. This all makes for a weird mix of retro fail and retro win, and the story about how the dangerous toys found their downfall is an extreme one.
Image: Chemical Heritage Foundation; 19th century chemistry set.
Instruction booklets in the 1950s told kids how to create smoke and explosions - which kids love, after all. Today, even the iodine contained in most of sets is some of a controlled substance, because it can be used to make methamphetamine - and is potentially lethal to drink. But the fall of the chemistry set wasn’t just because of safety concerns. It went far beyond that.
The decline came in the 1960s, with an increasing shift towards environmentally conscious living and focus on nuclear disarmament rather than creating more, bigger and better explosions. The chemistry set fell out of fashion for kids, though there’s currently a movement to bring it back - in part, spurred on by a demand for more educational toys and television shows which are making science cool again.
2. The Little Lady Stove
Image: via iCollector.com
In today’s age of political correctness, some may consider the idea of giving little girls stoves and other kitchen tools as toys is pretty cringe-worthy. More than that, though, some of them were unbelievably dangerous.
The Little Lady Stove was one of the worst offenders, on the market in the 1960s. It was one of a handful of toys that the National Commission on Product Safety recommended be banned completely, mostly because of the heat it put off. The oven racks would heat up to 600F (315C), which is hotter than most real-life, grown-up ovens ever need to be.
The ‘appliance’ was just another in a long line of dangerous toy stoves. Prior to the 1920s, the Little Lady line offered what were essentially real stoves in miniature, with real burners heated by coal. Electric stoves that really cooked - and burned - became all the rage around 1924, when the heavy cast iron models got a complete overhaul.
But these electric stoves were no less dangerous, with oven thermometers that could be turned up to 500F (260C), and in the 1930s, new enamelled models were marketed as being better able to resist damage from the extreme temperatures the ovens emitted.
In an epic footnote to the story of toy stoves, in 1930, Lionel made a stove that was so useful and so adult that people were picking them up not for their children, but as space-saving, actual kitchen appliances that were perfect for small apartments.
3. Lead Toys
Today, we all know that lead toys are bad. Very bad. Lead paint and lead toys have now been banned, but it wasn’t very long ago that the ban happened.
Strangely, the dangers of lead have been understood for many years - we have records dating back as far as ancient Rome in which physicians suggested a link between the widespread use of lead, especially to flavour wine, and the development of illnesses like gout and anaemia. The use of lead goes back even farther, with small lead statues having been recovered from Turkey that date back to around 6500 BC.
By the 1920s, most countries had banned lead paint, but lead toys were still commonly found in homes - and in children’s hands - across the world. Lead was cheap, easy to work with, and it was possible to mould figurines efficiently. In the 18th century, German toy manufacturers were making toy soldiers out of lead, and they were also the first to sell unpainted - or ‘paint your own’ - figures.
The British jumped in on the market in the late 1890s, meaning there wasn’t simply an abundance of lead soldiers out there, but lead animals, sailors, farmers and other figurines too. Lead jewellery was also popular, especially for children.
Everyone loves a warm summer day in a hammock, and if you were a kid during the 1980s and early ’90s, they made hammocks just in your size. They didn’t think through the design, though, and by 1996, they were being pulled off the shelves.
One of the most important parts of a hammock is the spreader bar, which keeps the netting open and makes it much easier to climb in and out of. The mini-hammocks that hit the market for kids were made without spreader bars, and between 1984 and 1995, 12 children reportedly died after being strangled in the mini-hammock. One 7-year-old girl suffered permanent brain damage after she was strangled by one, and other near-fatal accidents were reported too.
It’s another dangerous toy that, with hindsight, makes you wonder why anyone ever thought they were a good idea. But they were hugely popular, and when the recall came, some three million mini-hammocks were already in homes or shops. Manufactured by several companies, they were deemed such a threat that the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered full refunds be given to those who returned their mini-hammock to its place of purchase.
5. The Austin Magic Pistol
Image: via The Truth About Guns
If any toy could be considered endlessly controversial, it the toy gun. Even those that don’t see the harm in a nerf gun or a squirt gun can’t argue that the Austin Magic Pistol may just take things that bit too far.
Sold in the 1940s, the pistol fired ping pong balls at what can only be described as, for a toy, high velocity. The firing mechanism was calcium carbide, loaded into the back of the pistol and activated with a few drops of water.
It also shoots flames.
The largely smoke-free reaction nevertheless caused much more than a ping pong ball to come out of the gun. And because toys weren’t constructed with the best methods back in the day, the reaction usually meant sparks flew out of the back, too, where there was nothing more than a flimsy screw-top sealing the back.
In the 1940s, it was classified strictly as a toy. But with the advent of modern gun laws, it’s now seen as an actual firearm because of the chemical reaction that’s needed to fire it. There’s aren’t too many around anymore anyway - most of them ruptured from the force of the blast.
6. The Gilbert Glass-Blowing Kit
Image: via Jitterbuzz
The A.C. Gilbert Company was one of the largest and most successful toy manufacturers of the early 20th century - and they’re going to have more than one entry on this list.
Their glass blowing kit (for boys!) was designed to be as instructional as it was entertaining. According to the manual (which you can still find online), the kit was a complete guide to everything a boy needed to know in order to make anything from glass toys and straws to champagne glasses, window glass, and even glass beakers and lab equipment for your chemistry set. It tells how to heat up glass with the alcohol lamp, warning that it’s going to be hot when it’s glowing red.
Boys are taught how to bend glass to shape it, and the step-by-step guide also thoughtfully warns against using kerosene in the house, as it’ll cover everything with a black residue that won’t make mom happy that you’re playing with lamps and molten glass inside.
It’s a pretty simple toy from the 1970s, nothing more than two balls tied together with a string. Hold the middle of the string and swing the balls, and you can make an annoying sound - one of the main requirements for an excellent toy.
The problem with Clackers (which were also known as Knockers, Knicker Knackers, or other similar names) was that they were less often associated with the word ‘fun’ and more often with the word ‘shrapnel’. Swing them too hard and they would shatter into sharp pieces of acrylic. And Clackers that were used over and over again would eventually reach their critical breaking point. While some would just chip into pieces, there were enough incidents of epic proportion to ensure they were ultimately banned - although Clackers did see a resurgence in popularity in a much watered-down form.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission took the ban seriously, too, and in 1985, 4,600 of the dangerous toys, under the name KER-BANGERS, were seized by US Marshals at a toy wholesaler in Phoenix.
8. A.C. Gilbert Kaster Kits
Image: via liveauctioneers
We told you they were going to have a couple of entries on this list - back to the Gilbert Company! The A.C. Gilbert Kaster Kits included everything a kid could possibly need to melt metal and make his (or her) own die-cast figures.
From little lead soldiers to pieces for other games, the kit meant that you could spend hours making your own little lead armies. The lead was melted in a crucible that reached temperatures of up to 400F (204C), and when it came to safety, there was only one real warning: don’t pour water into the molten metal.
The kit was advertised as not only a one-of-a-kind slush-type casting setup, but also one that allowed kids to make twice as many figures out of the same amount of metal. When it first came out, there were 32 different moulds that came with it, meaning toy armies could be kitted out with everything from sailors and soldiers on horseback to athletes. They even advertised that soldiers could be coloured or painted to make them representative of the world’s many different armies.
Eventually, more and more kits would be released to go with the core set, ultimately including animals, cars, trains and even planes.
9. The Atomic Energy Lab
Image: via ORAU.org
The contents of the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab made lead-based toys look positively harmless.
The kit was only on the market for two years - 1951 and 1952 - and it cost a hefty US$50. At the time, the price tag (today, that’s the equivalent of about US$455) was blamed for the kit’s short-lived shelf life. But in retrospect, it probably had more to do with chilling memories of the atomic bomb and the kit’s contents.
The Atomic Energy Lab came with four different samples of uranium, along with a Geiger counter for measuring just what the uranium was putting off, a cloud chamber with power source, and the comic book, Dagwood Splits the Atom. The comic, which featured Dagwood of the popular comic strip (along with his wife, Blondie), gave kids a crash course in atomic energy that was narrated, in part, by Popeye.
Pieces of the kit could be purchases separately, and the accompanying paperwork told kids that it was in the nature of uranium to degrade over time. And, because the government isn’t afraid to outsource, there was also a manual that told kids how to find their own, new sources of uranium - and promised a US$10,000 reward from the government for that nugget of information.
Everyone knows that Jarts were banned, and looking at them today, we totally understand why. They’re weighted metal spikes designed to fly, after all. But the story of how they actually came to be banned is often overlooked, and it’s incredibly tragic.
In 1987, David Snow was looking for a volleyball set. He picked up a set that included a net and several other games - including Jarts. It wasn’t long before his 9-year-old son and some friends found the Jarts, and started tossing them around the garden. One ended up being thrown over the fence and into the front yard, impacting the skull of 7-year-old Michelle, Snow’s daughter. She died in hospital three days later.
Determined to get Jarts off the market, Snow found the dangerous toy had already come under fire once, but a lawsuit led to the decision that they could be sold with a warning label on the box and that they were clearly marked as an adult toy. Snow went back to the courts and insisted that they take another look at the injuries caused by the game. They found that not only were manufacturers and retailers not following the guidelines laid out by the previous ruling, but that Jarts had been responsible for 6,100 injuries over a period of eight years. Most were inflicted on children, many resulting in permanent damage.
When the safety commission was due to vote on whether or not to ban the toy completely, it was at the end of a week in which an 11-year-old girl had ended up a coma by Jart-related injuries. The ban was issued, but it was only on the sale of new games. With plenty of old Jart sets out there, it’s likely you’ll still see some appearing in yards every summer.
Top image: Toy chemistry set. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation/Wikimedia Commons.
[Source: Urban Ghosts Media. Edited.]