To prepare for futuristic careers in mid-century America, children played with toys of amazing sophistication. Mattel manufactured the Vac-U-Form, a machine for molding plastics. The Chemcraft Chemical Outfit provided reagents to perform 162 instructive experiments. And the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab trained kids to prospect for uranium with a Geiger counter, providing materials to analyze the ore.
None of these toys remain in production, even though the skills they taught are anything but outdated. Showcasing high temperatures, toxic chemicals and radioactivity, toys are now deemed too dangerous for their precocious prepubescent audience.
An entertaining new exhibit at Napa Valley Museum Yountville features these and dozens of other “dangerous toys” from the days before Richard Nixon signed the Toy Safety Act, aimed at putting dangerous toys out of harm’s way. Dangerous games is not a systematic review of policy changes and their impact. The Conservatives have defined dangerous more broadly than that. Lawn darts are a highlight, but space is also allocated for the Ouija Board, Hoop, and Twister game.
The result of this fuzzy approach is undoubtedly more enlightening than the conceptual rigor that could be found at MoMA. Parents are obsessed with risk and politicians are keen to convert parenting concerns into votes, but different people have different notions of danger. By including many perspectives without privileging any of them, the museum aptly reflects the lack of consensus and at least implicitly challenges assumptions.
Some of the toys on display could endanger children’s lives, even during ordinary play. With a sneaky throw, a one-pound lawn dart can land with a force of 23,000 pounds. Documented injuries include blindness and brain damage. For this reason, the US government banned the sale of lawn darts to children in 1970.
Other toys can become dangerous if used too often, exposing children to harmful materials such as asbestos, or could cause damage if intentionally misused, such as the Schwinn Sting-Rays which could being thrown from the hoods of cars and Red Ryder BB pistols that could be fired at enemies on the playing field. Catastrophic failure was another factor, as Wham-O discovered when Water Wiggles exploded under abnormal hydraulic pressure.
Since all toys can inflict damage in sufficiently extreme or unusual circumstances, the appropriate threshold of regulation is questionable. Like pharmaceuticals and building materials, every toy should be evaluated in terms of benefits and liabilities. For example, the feeling of independence provided by a bicycle is partly favored by the fact that the child could crash.
The area of moral hazard is much more difficult to assess. Moral standards vary from community to community and change over time. For example, The Hoop and Twister were both controversial because people found them sexually suggestive in the ’60s. (Concerns about the latter were unlikely to be dismissed after Johnny Carson played Twister with Eva Gabor on national television.)
Other moral concerns may not be so laughable. Consider, for example, the many toys promoting gender stereotypes, such as the Suzy Homemaker line of ovens, refrigerators and dishwashers that were once made by Topper. When attacked by feminists in the late 1960s, Topper ran an ad proclaiming that “Suzy Homemaker is a square. She is not wearing love pearls. She is wearing shoes. She even washes regularly.
While toy makers are rarely this brazen, it’s no surprise that a toy can make a political statement. From teddy bears to GI Joe, most toys do. The question that remains open is how toys can engage children in the political discussion instead of just targeting them.
Toys like the Vac-U-Form and the Atomic Energy Lab unexpectedly provide a partial answer. What is most remarkable about these toys is not their ability to prepare children for the job market – STEM Education before the letter – but rather their treatment of children as people capable of curiosity and critical thinking. With the Vac-U-Form came the danger of skin burns, and the uranium ore provided by Gilbert would have been a health hazard if it had crumbled and swallowed. However, these two toys demystified aspects of life that most parents have accepted without understanding, and that most people still accept or reject under a cloud of ignorance.
Industrial processes and technologies require political control. We can only make informed decisions about the use of plastics and nuclear power if we know what they are. The apprehension with which adults now approach Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab – which the Napa Valley Museum had tested for harmful radioactivity by the local bomb squad – is proof that a basic understanding of radioisotopes is still largely lacking (uranium emits alpha particles, which are fully absorbed by the glass vials.) Lacking familiarity with basic physical principles, how can citizens decide whether nuclear power is better than coal?
Greater than any physical danger posed by Mattel and Gilbert is the danger posed to society by children who come of age without rooting themselves in the underlying systems of civilization. This education benefits immeasurably from the practical experience gained through free play.
If children can deal with radioactivity, they can also withstand the vagaries of politics. More dangerous games are needed, from chemical equipment for formulating policies to a game of Twister for children to solve the moral puzzle together.
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