Radar looks back at the most dangerous playthings of all time
It has not been a good year for toys, and for toy giant Mattel in particular. First, the company recalled 1.5 million of their Sesame Street and Nickelodeon plastic toys, after discovering that the smiling faces of Elmo and the gang contained high levels of toxic lead paint. Then the killjoys at the Consumer Product Safety Commission struck again—18.2 million Polly Pocket and related dolls worldwide were also recalled because their tiny magnets could cause intestinal blockage or perforation if swallowed. Mattel wasn’t the only corporation slowly whittling away at America’s youth. Earlier this month, Aqua Dots from the Spin Master corporation were recalled when it turned out that, if swallowed, the balls could render kids comatose.
With over 10 million units of toys recalled in the United States in the past year alone, one could assume that we live in dangerous times. But, as anyone who has chucked a lawn dart knows, lethal Sesame Street pals and bowel-ripping Polly Pockets are kids’ stuff compared to the hazardous baubles of yesteryear.
In this spirit, Radar presents an updated version of the 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. AQUA DOTS
Beloved children’s toys of old have oft allowed youngsters to ape questionable adult behavior. (See candy cigarettes and those lovably trampy Bratz dolls) but the most recent addition to pantheon of dangerous toys—Aqua Dots from the Spin Master corporation—took it to the next level. The beads were part of a craft kit that was intended to let children created “multidimensional designs.” But when water was added to the plastic balls, the outside coating actually became toxic. The result: Curious tykes who licked the balls enjoyed the effects of date-rape drug GHB, long before their college years. Sure, it sounds cool. But victims of Aqua Dots could become “comatose, develop respiratory depression, or have seizures.” The toxic dots, which were labeled as appropriate for kids ages 4 and up, were recalled earlier this month, halting many untoward games of “doctor,” but robbing a generation of young artisans the chemical enhancement they so richly deserve.
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2. LAWN DARTS
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 ultraparanoid, 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.
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 semipermeable head of a 7-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.
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3. THE NEW EASY-BAKE OVEN
Easy-Bake Ovens have been around since the 1950s. But the “New Easy-Bake Oven,” much like The New Leave It to Beaver and Saved by the Bell: The New Class, had horrible shortcomings. The oven’s bright-pink front opening lured future homemakers in, promising them the joy and whimsy of consequence-free pastry making. But for 77 master bakers, the New Easy-Bake Oven actually become an incinerator of woe. According to the CSPC, the oven received 249 reports of children who thrust their eager hands into the toy’s front-loading oven, only to find their mitts were stuck. Casualties include “77 reports of burns, 16 of which were reported as second- and third-degree burns,” and “one report of a serious burn that required a partial finger amputation to a 5-year-old girl.” For those easy-bakers who ended up in the burn unit, the secret ingredient was not love, but a skin graft.
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4. GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB
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 American Memorabilia 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.
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 long-term impact of being raised by the kind of nerds who would give their kid an Atomic Energy Lab.
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5. MINI-HAMMOCKS FROM EZ SALES
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 and 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 5 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.
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6. SNACKTIME CABBAGE PATCH DOLLS
“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 blond 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.
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7. SKY DANCERS
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 more than 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.
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8. BAT MASTERSON DERRINGER BELT GUN
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 10-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 boomberbaby.com, 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.
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9. CREEPY CRAWLERS
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 fryer, which could heat up to a nerve-searing 310 degrees.
The plastigoop was poured over an extremely hot surface and then cast into the molds of various multicolored 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.
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10. JOHNNY REB CANNON
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 cannonballs, a ramrod, and a rebel flag. What better way to permanently maim your little brother while spreading valuable lessons about states’ rights?
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11. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA MISSILE LAUNCHER
Battlestar Galactica was everyone’s favorite television Star Wars rip-off in 1978. Especially cool among the Battlestar offerings was 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.
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12. FISHER-PRICE POWER WHEELS MOTORCYCLE
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-Knight Rider 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.
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HONORABLE MENTION #1: THE CHICKEN LIMBO PARTY GAME
What childhood would be complete with the memory of limboing under an oversize plastic chicken? But the Chicken Limbo Party Game, which seemed so inspired, had a darker side. The problem was with the Chicken Limbo support poles, which were unstable and, with the slightest breeze, could tumble on even the most flexible of tots, hitting them (and bystanders) with the business end of the chicken. The CPSC reports that Milton Bradley has received 46 reports of the game collapsing, and subsequent injuries have included “bumps, bruises, welts, and red marks, one chipped tooth, and one fractured foot.” In 2006, 461,000 of the toys were recalled, with the CPSC recommending that “consumers should take the recalled Chicken Limbo Game away from children immediately.” (Something parents concerned about the popularity and spinal alignment of their progeny perhaps should have considered beforehand.)
HONORABLE MENTION #2: MANLEY TOYS DISCO LIGHT
The brightly colored disco ball cost 1,500 Chuck E. Cheese tickets. For the average skee-baller, that adds up to about 15 months of play at a cost of approximately $20,000. If reports are accurate, the hard-won dance aide could also burn down your house. When left on too long, the ball’s multicolored sides begin to melt. The plastic goop then slides down to your shag carpet, creating a foul-smelling inferno of plastic, hair, and light bulb filament. At least, that’s what we assume happened in Jacksonville, Florida, when the innocuous looking orb, presumably left on after an extensive dance party, wrought death and destruction in May of this year, according to reports.
The case is still pending and the disco balls have yet to be recalled, but Chuck E. Cheese did see fit to remove them from his prize arsenal, and the manufacturer has since added a warning. Dancers are now advised to use the fun sphere for no longer than four hours at a time, which is about four hours longer than any kid should be discoing. The real danger here is probably less to dancing children than to the transfixed pot smoker.