I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Amazingly, sometimes products that have the potential to cause serious injuries or even death make it into the marketplace, and we are left to ask why isn’t there more adult supervision in the toy manufacturing business?
Dangerous Science in the Home
The A.C. Gilbert Company began operations in 1909 in Westville, Connecticut, and set its sights on capturing the market for toys that would appeal to curious boys. “Give your boy helpful, scientific tools” ran the ad copy. The company went on to praise its toys that gave the little guy an edge in hydraulics, engineering, chemistry, magnetism, and all the other disciplines in the burgeoning world of science.
Let’s make child’s play out of chemistry must have been the motivation behind the Gilbert Chemistry Set. There were test tubes, little bottles of mostly innocuous substances, and an instruction booklet. Then, there was the sodium cyanide, a poison, that somehow got past the what-could-possibly-go-wrong filter.
Gilbert also came out with its Gilbert Glass Blowing Set. Without supplying safety equipment, lads were encourage to heat up a blob of glass to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit (538 Celsius), and then blow. No, blow Timmy, don’t suck.
But, the A.C. Gilbert Company had a real doozy up its sleeve, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab Kit. Just let that sink in for a minute.
It was launched in 1950 and Mr. Gilbert called it “the most spectacular of [their] new educational toys.” The claim was that the kit was perfectly safe, but it contained radioactive ore, and people who knew a thing or two about science said it was not safe. It was pulled from the market after a year, but about 5,000 units escaped into the wild: “Honey, what’s that strange glow coming from the Wilson’s basement window?”
The Austin Magic Pistol
Gadgets that went bang and fired things were on every nipper’s Santa list, so they were in most toy manufacturers’ catalogues.
Herewith, the Austin Magic Pistol. Billed as a ray gun, this device came to market in the 1950s and fired ping-pong-like balls by an explosion of gas. There’s a chamber at the back of the gun into which the munchkin loads calcium carbide and water before screwing in a plastic plug. The result of this mixture is the production of highly inflammable acetylene gas.
The child (remember this was marketed as a toy) pulls the trigger that creates a spark to ignite the gas. Kaboom! A ping-pong ball and a bunch of flame flies out of the muzzle. Unfortunately, the cap on the explosion chamber had a tendency to blow off and scatter sparks and burning gas on the shooter. Quickly withdrawn from the market, the Austin Magic Pistol now commands a price upwards of $300, although it is classified as a firearm in some American states.
More Projectile Toys
Meet young Robert Jeffrey Warren, although sadly, you can’t. He was the proud owner of one of Mattel’s Battlestar Galactica space toys. An ace feature was the spring-loaded missile launcher in the space ship’s nose.
Four-year-old Robert was playing with his Christmas gift in December 1979 when he accidentally fired one the missiles into his larynx. He was rushed to hospital and the missile was removed, but it was too late; the little guy’s brain had been starved of oxygen too long and he died.
The toys were recalled by the manufacturer.
In 2017, toothpick-firing crossbows were all the rage in China. The BBC reports that “The tiny crossbows fire toothpicks powerful enough to break cardboard, apples, or even soda cans.” They have been banned in some Chinese cities but are still advertised for sale on Alibaba.com.
Lawn darts can trace their lineage back 2,500 years when they were called plumbata and were a weapon of war. They were weighted spikes that were thrown with the hope they would land in an enemy’s torso.
Jarts operated on a similar principle, although the target was a plastic ring on a lawn. The theoretically non-warlike version appeared in the 1950s and accidents followed fairly quickly thereafter. Darts started to pierce human soft tissue as a result of errant throws.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the dart, saying that by 1978 “An estimated 6,100 people have been treated in hospital emergency rooms for injuries involving lawn darts ...”
The manufacturers howled “Unfair” and squirmed out of the ban by promising not to market the darts to kiddies. But that didn’t stop the injuries, and then, in 1987, seven-year-old Michelle Snow was killed when a dart penetrated her skull. Two other children died and the lawn darts were finally banned for good, although not recalled.
Dangerous Toys for Girls
It’s not just boys who have been put in harm’s way by the toy industry.
As if the Snacktime Cabbage Patch Kid wasn’t creepy enough with its disturbing resemblance to Chucky in the horror movie Child’s Play, Mattel had to go and animate it to make it simulate eating.
The doll’s mouth moved so that when fake, plastic food was put in it appeared to chomp on it, and chomp, and chomp, and chomp. That was the problem, no off switch.
In 1996, three-year-old Carly Mize got her hair caught in the chomping Cabbage Patch Kid and was left partly bald. Other girls suffered a similar fate, so Mattel pulled the dolls and offered a full refund to the half million people who had bought them.
In 2006, the Hasbro Easy-Bake Oven was voted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. (Hands up all those who knew there was such an organization. Thought so). It turns out the accolade was a bit premature.
By 2007, one million of the cookers were recalled. The heating element in the oven was an actual electric heating element that big people use that could generate temperature of 200 degrees Celsius (400 °F). Tiny fingers could get trapped and burned; so badly in the case of one five-year-old girl who had to have a finger partially amputated.
It’s difficult to grasp how companies can make such obvious errors of planning and product testing. Perhaps, they recognize their next mega-toy is potentially harmful but the cost-benefit analysis dictates that the profits are much greater than any compensation that might have to be paid out. It's not that that hasn't happened before.
- Walmart has a variety of slingshots available priced from $4.97 to $26.73. As long ago as 2006, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reported on slingshot injuries to “a 12-year-old boy who was blinded in one eye; a 16-year-old boy who has decreased vision; and an 11-year old boy who has three broken teeth.”
- Plah-Doh was invented in the 1930s for use in cleaning wallpaper. It wasn’t until 1954 that it dawned on someone it made a good toy. As far as is known, Play-Doh is quite harmless.
- The global toy industry had total revenues of $90 billion in 2018.
- “The Inspiring, Nerdy Toys of A. C. Gilbert.” Scientific American, undated.
- “Obscure Object of Desire: Austin Magic Pistol.” Truth about Guns, November 8, 2011.
- “20 Most Dangerous Toys of All Time.” Caroline Picard, Good Housekeeping, August 29, 2018.
- “The 1950s Science Kit that Had Real Uranium.” Colton Kruse, Ripley’s Believe it or not, August 21, 2019.
- “Child’s Play May Result in Tragedy.” Henry Gilgoff, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, July 1, 1979.
- “Lawn Darts Can Cause Serious or Fatal Head Injuries and Death.” U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, July 30, 1987.
- “Cabbage Patch Doll ‘Eats’ Girls’ Hair.” Associated Press, December 30, 1996.
© 2020 Rupert Taylor