Ah, Remember the Days When Your Toy Might Contain Real Uranium?

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A toy chemistry set under a vitrine at a museum.
The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, a popular activity toy of the 1950s, contained real uranium. It’s one of many problematic playthings on view at the Napa Valley Museum. (Courtesy of Napa Valley Museum)

The Napa Valley Museum’s current exhibition, Dangerous Games: Treacherous Toys We Loved As Kids, is crammed with 20th century notions of kiddie fun that would make any prudent 21st century parent sick with worry.

There are toys that can shatter into deadly jagged shards, like Clackers, the inspiration for the famous 1970s Saturday Night LiveBag O’ Glass” skit starring Dan Aykroyd as a laissez-faire toy company CEO.

There are toys containing radioactive substances, like the 1950s Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab complete with real uranium. (A vintage TV ad for the Gilbert range of children’s science toys states they are “made as completely safe as human ingenuity can devise.”)

And then there are the toys that can cause third degree burns, like the Thingmaker, a popular activity toy launched by Mattel in the 1960s.

“You basically put incredibly toxic goo into a searing hot mold, lowered it into the oven, and then you were supposed to take it out and cool it in a little pan,” says Napa Valley Museum executive director and exhibition curator Laura Rafaty. “But nobody did that.”

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Unsurprisingly, you won’t find toys like these for sale in stores this holiday season. But in addition to inspiring nostalgia for a bygone, possibly less anxious, era, Dangerous Games asks us to consider whether the hazards of playtime have really changed.

Creepy Crawlers, Mattel Inc., 1964 (Carl Van Vechten / Library of Congress)

Nostalgia for the Joy of Searing Hot Metal

The Creepy Crawlers version of the Thingmaker made colorful bugs out of a liquid chemical substance known as Plasti-Goop. Rafaty says it provided double the fun.

“You could put the spider in your sister’s hair, up your nose or whatever,” she says. “But then you can also chase your siblings through the house with the searing hot metal tray.”

In 1973, the then-nascent Consumer Product Safety Commission discontinued the toy. Less dangerous versions were subsequently released. But Rafaty says they were also less exciting. This is partly why she was inspired to create the exhibition, which has attracted more than six times as many adults as kids since it opened in September.

“We’ve lost a lot of the innocence that we had when we were able to run through the house with a searing hot metal plate,” she says. “And not having to be afraid all the time is something I’ve heard a lot from people—that they miss that.”

“There’s trickery of nostalgia to misremember certain things,” says Grafton Tanner, the author of the new book The Hours Have Lost Their Clock: The Politics of Nostalgia. He says most people get the warm-and-fuzzies when they think about the past because it seemed safer than the present. But visitors to the Napa Valley Museum seem to romanticize the dangers of the post-war period instead.

“It just shows that people can be nostalgic for a time period for various reasons,” Tanner says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be for a time that was safe and cozy. It could be for a time that was rough and maybe even dangerous.”

Napa Valley Museum executive director and 'Dangerous Games' exhibition curator Laura Rafaty poses with a giant law dart. Lawn darts are considered among the most dangerous toys ever to have been released in the U.S. market. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Today’s ‘Safer’ Toys

By some measures toys have become safer.

“I would say they are safer than they have ever been,” says Joan Lawrence, senior vice president of safety standards and regulatory affairs or the Toy Association, a U.S. toy industry trade group.

A recent U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report says toy-related injuries for all age groups except children under four dropped significantly between 2013 and 2020.

Lawrence adds there are now more than 100 U.S. safety standards for games and toys. “They cover things like mechanical and physical hazards—small parts, sharp edges, projectiles,” she says. “And then they cover things like the safety of the materials, cleanliness, the sound level of toys.”

Despite the long list of safety standards, and today’s extremely vigilant culture of parenting, the risks persist.

The toy safety education nonprofit, World Against Toys Causing Harm (WATCH) is one among several groups in this country concerned with toy safety today. WATCH regularly raises the alarm about precarious toys through lobbying and media outreach efforts. In a recent video, WATCH president Joan Siff expounds on the hazards of a variety of traveling toys: “Watch out for toys that encourage kids to stand and play,” she says. “Like pogo sticks, skate-swings, two-footed hoverboards that are often marketed without the appropriate safety gear.”

Some parents who visited the Napa Valley Museum show, like Bay Area mom Amme Perry, say the hazards associated with playtime haven’t really diminished. They’ve simply gone elsewhere.

“Instead of getting chemicals in the science set, now they can go online and see whatever they want,” Perry says. “And you would never know.”

A white middle aged man sits in lawn chair surrounded by a collection of frisbees.
Former Wham-O employee Andy Fusso shows off his frisbee collection at the Napa Valley Museum. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)

Creating Room For Discovery With a Little Risk

Parents like Perry recognize that when it comes to how their kids spend their leisure hours, there’s only so much they can control. And the history of toymaking suggests that a little risk might not be such a bad thing.

Take the frisbee.

The game has become a staple of outdoor family fun since California toymaker Wham-O started manufacturing it in the 1950s, despite the fact that getting hit in the face by a flying disc made of hard plastic is frequently the opposite of fun.

Former Wham-O employee and Sonoma County resident Andy Fusso says the company tried a few decades ago to come out with a softer model made of wobbly rubber. But the product never made it to market.

“We determined that a frisbee that was rigid enough to fly would hurt you if it hits you in the face,” Fusso says. “And a frisbee that was nice and soft and wouldn’t hurt you in the face wouldn’t fly.”

Fusso says customers don’t always want toys that are completely safe. The goal is to achieve a sweet spot that gives children room for discovery—and provides for plenty of nostalgia when they grow up.

“On one side, you don’t want the ‘Bag O’ Glass,’” Fusso says. “But on the other side, you want something that’s a little bit edgy.”

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‘Dangerous Games: Treacherous Toys We Loved as Kids’ is on view at The Napa Valley Museum in Yountville through April 10, 2022. Details here.