What's that bare spot under the Christmas tree? It's a silent salute to the toys we've lost to regulations and lawsuits over the years—toys that delighted many and maimed a few.
Toys like the bizarre Cabbage Patch Snacktime Kid that, one wag noted, always seemed to be high. That's because the '90s doll was built to "eat" whatever you could fit into its soft rubber mouth, which served as a portal to some kind of internal turbine that—significantly—did not come with an "off" switch. While you could deliberately feed it everything from a plastic french fry to a stick of chalk, it had the doll equivalent of an eating disorder, obsessively consuming anything that got caught in its maw—including some little girls' hair.
And so, reported the Associated Press on December 30, 1996, "three-year-old Carly Mize was left partly bald on Thursday…" That was the end of that particular item from Mattel.
The toy world is littered with bad ideas, including the classic Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, released in 1950. The set included an electroscope to measure the radioactivity of the samples provided, but a warning stated that "users should not take ore samples out of their jars." You might expect a toy bringing literal radioactivity into the home would sell like (extreeeeeemely) hotcakes, but this one fizzled in the marketplace.
Gilbert continued to sell its non-nuclear chemistry sets until the company's demise in 1967. It's just as well the great inventor A.C. Gilbert did not live to see our current era's chem sets, dumbed down by forces like the Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act of 1960, the Toy Safety Act of 1969, the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, and the ministrations of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), founded in 1972. Those efforts don't just keep genuinely hazardous substances out of the hands of budding chemists. After a while, "You couldn't really make anything," says consultant Chris Byrne (a.k.a. The Toy Guy). "You couldn't get black powder anymore. You didn't get any of the cool stuff. It's all baking soda."
Byrne fondly remembers the Creepy Crawlers of his youth. With this toy, kids squirted plastic goop into flat metal molds of insect shapes, then heated them in the macho equivalent of an E-Z Bake Oven. Users were expected to remove the red-hot tray from the heat with tongs and submerge it in water to cool. "A hot Creepy Crawler plate was a good way to torment your brother," Byrne recalls. Today, with some persistence, you can still find Creepy Crawler sets for sale, but as one reviewer noted, these seem "redesigned by lawyers." Let's just say that no tongs or cooling baths are required anymore.
The '90s brought youngsters a toy called the Sky Dancer, a plastic fairy with spinning wings. You attached the doll to a base, pulled a ripcord, and off she flew—erratically and fast. It took six years for the CPSC to ground the dancers, which it did in 2000, saying the manufacturer had received 150 reports of injuries, including scratched corneas, facial lacerations, and a broken rib. That might seem dangerous, but this was a recall of 9 million dolls. Is your child's bike as safe?
The odds were admittedly worse for kids playing with perhaps the best known of all banned toys: Jarts. These sharp metal "lawn darts" were designed to whiz through the air and sink into anything soft, such as your grass, or pet, or foot. After the CSPC compiled a list of 6,100 injuries and one fatality, it banned them the week before Christmas in 1988.
It's hard to complain about that particular decision. But today's toys are so risk-averse—and politically correct—it's almost embarrassing. There was Spanish Barbie in a matador costume, which Mattel stopped selling after an activist campaign noted matadors kill bulls. Joining Barbie were 19 million plastic "dive sticks"—cigar-size weighted sticks that stand upright at the bottom of the pool—recalled after six "impalement injuries." And 300,000 Colorful Hearts Teddy Build-a-Bears were yanked off the market because they were covered in "substandard fabric" which could rip, and if it did, the bear's eyes could fall out, and these, in turn, could pose a choking hazard. That's a lot of coulds, especially considering the Consumer Product Safety Commission notes on its website that it had heard no reports of injuries.
With so many playthings gone, Joan Siff and James Swartz, a duo of personal injury lawyers who produce the annual "10 Worst Toys" list, now have to scrape the bottom of the class-action barrel to find contenders. Last year's inventory included a stuffed animal. It could, they said, suffocate a child.
The lawyers—who call themselves World Against Toys Causing Harm, or W.A.T.C.H.—also warned about a dinosaur toy with a "rigid, pointed tail, which may be held close to a child's torso or face. There exists a potential for significant puncture wounds during encouraged playtime activity." Puncture wounds is, of course, litigator-speak for You could poke somebody's eye out!
Sticks and balls of string remain unregulated. Maybe we can put those under the Christmas tree.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Dangerous Toys of Christmas Past".