Saturday, June 29, 2013

The 10 most dangerous play things of all time

Guest post by Paige Ferrari

VERY BAD SANTA: We made our list, checked it twice, crammed it with naughty, and left out the nice

Several years ago, Target recalled 10 of its Kool Toyz-brand play sets, citing hazards like "lead paint," "sharp points," and "puncture wound potential." The toys, which included plastic aircraft carriers, dinosaurs, and tanks, all appeared harmless enough. But according to the killjoys at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, children—at least those prone to eating plastic objects as big as their head—were at serious risk. A week later, Mattel recalled 4.4 million Polly Pocket dolls and accessories because kids were swallowing the toy's magnets. The Associated Press reported, "If more than one magnet is swallowed, they can attach to each other and cause intestinal perforation, infection or blockage." Three children required surgery.

In 2006 alone, some eight million units of toys were recalled in the U.S., according to W.A.T.C.H., a toy-safety advocacy group. But Kool Toys and Polly Pockets are kids' stuff compared to the hazardous baubles of yesteryear. In the spirit of the holidays, we present the 10 most dangerous toys of all time, those treasured playthings that drew blood, chewed digits, took out eyes, and, in one case, actually irradiated. To keep things interesting, we excluded BB guns, slingshots, throwing stars, and anything else actually intended to inflict harm. Below, our toy box from hell.

1. Lawn Darts

DEATH FROM ABOVE - Respect the Jart or it will destroy you

Removable parts? Suffocation risk? Lead paint? Pussy hazards compared to the granddaddy of them all. Lawn Darts, or "Jarts," as they were marketed, would never fly in our current ultra-paranoid, safety-helmeted, Dr. Phil toy culture. Lawn darts were massive weighted spears. You threw them. They stuck where they landed. If they happened to land in your skull, well, then you should have moved. During their brief (and generally awesome) reign in 1980s suburbia, Jarts racked up 6,700 injuries and four deaths.

STOP TOSS MEASURES: The lawn dart was put on the permanent no-fly list in 1988

The best part about Jarts was that they eliminated all speculation from true outdoor fun. (Is this dangerous? Hell yes, now chuck it!) And they were equal opportunity: All it took to play lawn darts was a sweaty grip. For good measure, it was also nice to have a small sibling around to stand on the other side of the house and tell you how your throw looked (and by how much you cleared the chimney).

The actual rules of lawn darts, as laid out by the manufacturer, were never important. No one is known to have used Jarts for their intended purpose. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that an accident involving a wayward spear and the semi-permeable head of a seven-year-old resulted in the toys' being banned from the market in 1988. Sadly, today's underage boys will never know the primal excitement of a summer's evening spent impaling friends before suppertime.

2. Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab

FISSION BUDDY - Fallout shelter not included

Honey, why is your face glowing?

In 1951, A.C. Gilbert introduced his U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, a radioactive learning set we can only assume was fun for the whole math club. Gilbert, who Americanmemorabilia claims was "often compared to Walt Disney for his creative genius," had a dream that nuclear power could capture the imaginations of children everywhere. For a mere $49.50, the kit came complete with three "very low-level" radioactive sources, a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson Cloud Chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a Spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an Electroscope to measure radioactivity.

MUTUALLY ASSURED INSTRUCTION - Junior Einsteins had everything they needed, except a hazmat suit

And what nuclear lab for kids would be complete without an Atomic Energy Manual and Learn How Dagwood Splits the Atom comic book? (The latter was written with the help of General Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project.)
Kids do the darndest things, but not, apparently, nuclear physics. The toy was only sold for one year. It's unclear what effects the Uranium-bearing ores might have had on those few lucky children who received the set, but exposure to the same isotope—U-238—has been linked to Gulf War syndrome, cancer, leukemia, and lymphoma, among other serious ailments. Even more uncertain is the longterm impact of being raised by the kind of nerds who would give their kid an Atomic Energy Lab.

3. Mini-Hammocks from EZ Sales

SWING AND A PRAYER - One false move on the Mini-Hammock and leisure turned to seizure

Mini-hammocks seemed innocuous enough. No projectiles, no lead paint, no sharp edges, and no explicit danger (except sloth). But between the years of 1984–1995 the EZ Sales mini-hammock, oft marketed under the name "Hang Ten," managed to hang 12.

CPSC reported in August 1996 that the product had resulted in the fatal and near-fatal asphyxiation of dozens of kids ages five to 17 and recalled three million of them. Among the banned EZ products were Hangouts Baby Hammocks, or "Baby's First Death Cocoon," woven from thin cotton and nylon strings.

The culprit was a missing set of "spreader bars," supports meant to keep the hammock open when it was "at ease." Unfortunately, children seeking to spend an afternoon like Gilligan became entangled in the net and strangled to death. That's what happens when you spend $4 on a hammock. If death by seating is to be your fate, we recommend the electric chair.

4. Snacktime Cabbage Patch Dolls

SHOCK AND GNAW - She might not have been human, but her hunger pains were all too real

"Feed Me!" begged the packaging for 1996's Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kid. And much like the carnivorous Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, the adorable lineup of Cabbage Patch snack-dolls appeared at first to be harmless. They merely wanted a nibble—a carrot perhaps, or maybe some yummy pudding. They would stop chewing when snack time was done—they promised. Then they chomped your child's finger off.

In creating this innovative new toy, the great minds at Mattel devised a motorized mouth that sensed neither pleasure nor pain. It chewed for chewing's sake. With no mechanism to turn off the munching should trouble arise, it was only a matter of time before some cherub's long blonde hair got caught in the doll's rabid jaws. After 35 fingers and ponytails fell victim, the Snacktime Kids were removed from retail shelves forever, and 500,000 customers were offered a full $40 refund.

5. Sky Dancers

THE NUTCRACKER - Keep your distance from this femme fatale

Executives at Galoob Toys predicted big sales for Christmas 1994. With their new Sky Dancer, they would be the first toy company to combine the sparkly femininity of Barbie with the firepower of a bottle rocket.

In December of that same year, a New York Times article predicted that if Galoob met its goals, Sky Dancer would "be all the rage, the sort of product that engenders black markets, toy-related bribes, and giddy newspaper stories invoking the word 'phenomenon.'" The writer, giddy himself over the "sprite's powerful launch," added, "For every parent who doubts Sky Dancer's safety ... there are 10 who feel the foam wings and take their softness as an assurance of safety."

But six years later, the Sky Dancer was grounded. When spun aloft, the wings—which felt so soft and cushy in the aisles of Toys "R" Us—turned into steely-hard child manglers. In 2000, the CPSC announced that over 150 children fell prey to Sky Dancer's helicopter-blade arms and erratic "Oh-Jesus-it's-chasing-me!" flying patterns. Injuries included scratched corneas and temporary blindness, mild concussions, broken ribs and teeth, and facial lacerations that required stitches. Nearly nine million Sky Dancers were eventually recalled, leaving aspiring ballerinas to earn their battle scars the old fashioned way, with an eating disorder.

6. Bat Masterson Derringer Belt Gun

CROTCH ROCKET - That's not the kind of pelvic thrust Suzy had in mind

Some kids had belt buckles. Others had cap guns. Only the lucky ones had the Bat Masterson Derringer Belt Gun, a two-in-one combo that took care of all your pants-securing needs with the option every ten-year-old dreams of: the ability to shoot caps at groin level.

One Bat Masterson enthusiast, identified as "Tim from Shoreview, Maine" on nostalgia website remembers, "When you stuck out your stomach putting pressure on the buckle, a small gun would pop out and fire a cap." A gut-busting meal, in that case, could lead to a serious friendly-fire mishap.

According to SafeKids USA, "Caps can be ignited by friction and cause serious burns." Every young boy needs to learn the valuable lesson of always protecting his nether regions, with force if necessary, but given the positioning of the Derringer, the owner's greatest enemy might have actually been puberty.

7. Creepy Crawlers

THE FRYING GAME - Horse around with the Thingmaker and you'll get the third degree

Nothing says safety like an open hot plate. And nothing says fun like using that open hot plate to create molten, rubbery insects you can throw at your sister while narrowly avoiding setting the house ablaze. The 1964 Creepy Crawler Thingmaker from Mattel, a distant cousin of today's Creepy Crawler toys, came with a series of molds, tubes of "plastigoop," and an open-faced frier, which could heat up to a nerve-searing 310 degrees.

FLESH DIRECT The molds came in many different varieties, but rarely in the shape of your little brother's hand
The plastigoop was poured over an extremely hot surface and then cast into the molds of various multi-colored critters. The results? Fingerprint removal. At least those who dodged serious injury or disfigurement could safely eat their creation. Oh wait, the critters were toxic, too. But this was the '60s, and though there was an outcry from the singed and sickened masses, Mattel went right on marketing their electric ovens to children.

8. Johnny Reb Cannon

WHISTLING DIXIE - Through the new hole in your head

SCHLOCK AND LOAD This must-watch 1961 commercial for the Reb features the catchy jingle, "We'll all be gay when Johnny comes marching home!" Click play, you'll thank us.

The South did rise again, at least during playtime for the owners of the Johnny Reb, a 30-inch "authentic civil war" cannon draped in the confederate flag. The Reb fired hard, plastic cannonballs with a spring mechanism—the aspiring secessionist need only pull a lanyard. No word on exactly how fast the cannonballs flew, but they traveled up to 35 feet and seemed perfectly sized to lodge into an eye socket, down an open mouth, or through a slave's window.
For only $11.98, young rebels got a cannon, six cannon balls, a ramrod, and a rebel flag. What better way to permanently maim your little brother while spreading valuable lessons about states' rights?

9. Battlestar Galactica Missile Launcher

READY, AIM, CHOKE - Never underestimate the stopping power of a tiny plastic missile

Battlestar Galactica was everyone's favorite television Star Wars rip-off in 1978. Especially cool among the Battlestar offerings were a series of missile launchers known individually as the Viper, the Cylon Raider, the Scarab, and the Stellar Probe. Young boys routinely forgot they actually asked for the Millennium Falcon for Christmas once they saw the sweet, sweet projectile action.
It takes just a few jabbed eyes, some torn intestines and the death of a child to bring down a party, and that's just what happened in January 1979, when the battle cruiser missiles were finally recalled. Most of the accidents were caused by salvos that went tragically off target. Mattel, working with the CPSC, announced that the fatality occurred when a young boy in Atlanta fired one of the missiles into his mouth. The missiles, at one and a quarter inches, were just about the ideal size to land in one's esophagus and stay there. The boy's parents thought so too. They sued Mattel for $14 million.

A spokesperson from the CPSC explained that "the barrel shape of the toy seemed to invite children to put it in their mouths." Something you could apparently say in 1979 without too much snickering. After the injuries, Mattel called for consumers to participate in a "Missile Mail-In," which promised a free Hot Wheels car—a fair trade to anyone who disarmed.

10. Fisher-Price Power Wheels Motorcycle

QUEASY RIDER - From zero to broken arm in 39 seconds

The Fisher-Price Power Wheels Motorcycle is one of those toys kids salivate over for years. Even adults can barely contain their jealousy when the little brat from down the block whizzes by on that shiny plastic hog. But the ride wasn't always so smooth. In fact, on some models, there was a rather serious glitch.

Eager youngsters who gunned the throttle found that it often stayed gunned, stuck in a petrifying state of perma-acceleration. Presumably, the child on the motorcycle was then taken on a hellish, intestine-twisting scream ride. At one point, he or she would face choices unthinkable except in an Evel Knievel meets Knightrider crossover episode: Do I jump? Or do I ride it out and see if I can clear the gully? Is it sentient? Can it be reasoned with?

In August 2000, Fisher-Price recalled 218,000 of the Power Wheels motorcycles, warning: "Children can be injured when the motorcycle ride-ons fail to stop and strike other objects." Stunt children everywhere observed a moment of silence.


Anonymous said...


We had one that put that hammock to shame-we'd entice an unsuspecting friend into laying down on a hid-a-bed and fold them up into it. You were absolutely immobilized and at the complete mercy of your buds to let you out.

The best thing was even the screaming was muffled so our parents didn't have a clue.

I think I permanently traumatized my sister when we did it once and left the room and turned all the lights out-maybe for a whole 5 minutes-must be why she's a creepy REgressive to this day.

Anonymous said...

As to Jarts.... we played the game as kids, and yes, we played by the rules. It was a lot of fun and none of us EVER got hurt. I think if they looked at number of sets sold vs injuries reported it wouldn't look so bad. This was part of the beginning of the nanny-stateism where no toy can injure, even if used outside of intended purposes. Crazy. And no, I don't think lead paint on toys was a problem either.

K-Bob said...

No wood burning kit?

Chemistry labs were fun, too.

Anonymous said...

The toy of all toys,the mattel sonic blaster.I still have mine,but not much hearing on the right side.Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

We had the Creepy Crawlers oven. Our folks got it for us after they taught us the meaning of the word "hot". Is this something children no longer learn?


Vince said...

I wonder what ever happened to parenting. Maybe we should just wrap kids in bubble wrap until they graduate college.
Seriously... Creepy Crawler? Yeah, it was hot. It's how you (well, maybe not you) learn - or should I remove the oven from the kitchen.
Kids can't even ride a bicycle without girding up like they were going to war.
I wonder what these "safely raised" kids will do when they get in the real world. Maybe they'll live in California or NYC.

Anonymous said...

Had a jart land in my head from above when I was 5 and brothers were throwing up into air and having me run and dodge. Lots of blood but no stitches or hospital since we in Death Valley and it was 1968--so long before the '80s"
Just a flesh wound Dad said. And he was right, the 120 degree tempatrure (august) made it clog up fast.

Anonymous said...

Eh...I guess kids have gotten stupider or something. I had Sky Dancers when I was young and never had an accident. As long as kids play the right way and don't fool around like jerks, then all of these toys are fine. I could never see why people made such a big deal about toys like these being "too dangerous for MY child." ...My sister and I never had any problems.

Anonymous said...

We used to play "catch" with Jarts back in the 60's. Never caught one, but quickly learned to try "from the side." Tons of fun for everyone!

Anonymous said...

Thanks. I can't remember when I've laughed as hard. Should I have? I don't care.