Boomers Survived Christmas Toy Hazards

In the classic movie, A Christmas Story, the character Ralphie wants a BB gun for Christmas. His mother and father tell him he’ll shoot his eye out — and even on a visit to Santa, the jolly man himself chimed in with, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” Ralphie persisted and his father bought him the BB gun through his wife’s objections. Playing outside on Christmas Day, Ralphie does in fact almost shoot his eye out when a BB ricochets off his target to hit him in the cheek. But BB guns were hardly the least dangerous toys for boomers. In fact, in Mister Boomer’s view, hazards were more the rule than the exception.

Throughout the 1950s, ’60s and into the ’70s, boomer toys contained all manner of safety hazards, from projectiles that could shoot your eye out to small pieces that could be swallowed, and cuts and bruises potential that at the time seemed like part of everyday play. Mister B recalls receiving a cheaply-made bow and arrow, the arrows being tipped with suction cups. Of course, Brother Boomer immediately grabbed an arrow and pulled the suction cups off to reveal just the wooden tip. Though blunt, it certainly had the potential for damage if the shot was errant. The bow had a string that was more appropriate for a kite, but still, Brother Boomer launched arrows at Mister B that resulted in stinging body blows.

Mister Boomer remembers making slingshots with neighborhood kids, out of tree branches and old rubber bike inner tubes. Acorns and small rocks were the choice projectiles chosen to sling. Regardless of whether a toy was inherently hazardous, boomers could play with them in a such a way as to create a hazard. Mister Boomer recalls Brother Boomer and a cousin playing with Tonka trucks. Sitting on his aunt’s basement floor, each would roll a metal truck at the other as fast as they could possibly push it, the objective being a massive crash of toys and a metallic twang that seemed to be very satisfying to them. This was the late 1950s, and Tonka trucks were made of solid metal, so there was hardly any damage to the toys in the process. Fortunately, no metal pieces flew out from the intentional accidents. Can you imagine the same scenario a decade later, when the trucks were made of plastic, of the sharp pieces that could have broken off and gone flying?

One year, Mister Boomer’s sister got an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas. Though she did not experience any injury operating the appliance, other children did. The tiny light bulb inside got hot enough to bake a tiny cake, and hundreds of kids did burn their little fingers. It was pulled off the market in the ’70s, then retooled to add safety precautions, and came back in the ’80s.

Lawn darts have been around for centuries, but whoever thought giving kids a sharp metal spike with dart fins on it was a good idea never saw a boomer play. Lawn darts became popular under various names throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. Mister Boomer’s cousins had the brand name game, Jarts, but rather than toss them like horseshoes into a plastic ring on the lawn, they took to throwing them like mini-javelins at each other. Fortunately, they did not get hurt in the process, but between 1978-86, more than 6,000 children ended up in emergency rooms, and two children were killed, by playing with this toy.

The classic hazardous toy in Mister Boomer’s mind has to be Mattel’s Creepy Crawlers (also sold as Thingmaker), introduced in 1964. It was a kit that came with metal molds and a liquid that, when heated, would produce a rubbery plastic model of a spider, snake or other insect (the creepy crawlers part). A child would attach the metal mold to the provided hot plate, plug it in, drop the goop into the mold and as the plate was heated to 390 degrees, watch the liquid coalesce into a bug. Boys and girls loved this toy! Mister Boomer’s sister loved this toy, and he recently learned his spouse did as well. After numerous injuries were reported, the Consumer Products Safety Commission, created in 1973, put the kibosh on it and Mattell discontinued manufacturing the product. They brought it back in 1978 after engineering some safety checks into it. Basically, the toy no longer provided the hot plate, so kids had to have mom and dad help them heat up the goop. Yeah, that idea went well. It quickly disappeared, but was revived by another company, Toymax, in 1992.

How about you, boomers? What was your favorite hazardous toy you received for Christmas?

Boomers and Safety: Let’s Be Careful Out There

The notion of safety is yet another in a long list of things that have dramatically changed since the 1950s and ’60s. It makes Mister Boomer recall the before-and-after poster that was circulating after the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) was passed in 1970: on the left of the horizontal poster was a cowboy on a horse, and on the right that same cowboy after OSHA. Various safety belts and devices had been attached to the cowboy, and a safety net was suspended from the horse.

A decade or two earlier, parents viewed safety as more of a “let’s be careful out there” teaching moment than a pro-active sheltering of their children. From an early age, “no” was sufficient to train us from sticking things into electrical outlets or handling pots on a stove. Many boomers have noted how we were free to come and go, especially in the summer months, without either parent knowing where we were or what we were doing. True, and probably inevitably, what Mister B and his neighborhood were doing wasn’t always the smartest activities, like riding bikes (or sleds) down impossibly-angled hills; jumping off swings at the peak zenith to the rocks or asphalt below; building tree houses in the woods with found materials; climbing and playing on heavy construction equipment; and many more.

It’s not that the notion of safety was absent from boomer lives altogether. In school they’d see safety films (complete with rattling projector noises and garbled voiceovers) about electricity safety, fire safety, swimming safety, street-crossing safety and most notably, bicycle safety. It is the latter that brings a chuckle to Mister Boomer, because his school once saw a bike safety film that had Mister B’s brother in it. Somehow, the local police had filmed neighborhood kids — including Brother Boomer — riding their bikes no-handed in the middle of the street.

It was common practice for neighborhood kids to be riding no-handed, attempt “wheelies” and other tricks on their bikes in the street, so Brother Boomer could have been filmed at any point. It’s a mystery why the filmmakers chose to use him as an example, though.

Mister B recalls one no-handed ride by Brother Boomer that was part of a game the neighborhood kids had devised. Since the block had a hill that sloped down to a highway, the kids would use it for sledding in winter, and bike or homemade go-kart riding in summer. In this particular game, the kids — mostly boys — would ride down the block as fast as they felt was “safe,” then jumped off the bike across the street from Mister B’s house near the bottom of the hill. The object was to lift the bike up the curb, jump off and land in the grass. It was fun. Extra points were obtained if the riderless bike went on to hit the tree at the edge of the neighbor’s property. Brother Boomer did a run no-handed once, upping the ante for participants.

The film did not show the game and the jumping off part, but made a point of showing that riding without both hands on the handlebars was not a safe thing for kids to do, even on a side street.

Mister Boomer has written previously about how the building of the Interstate Highway System became a playground for him and his neighborhood boomer friends. Whenever construction was finished for the day or week, the kids would be on the sites — which were not fenced off — climbing on equipment and playing in construction trailers and on mounds of dirt. Hazards were everywhere, and the mere thought of kids on construction sites would be unthinkable today.

Chances are these and many of the activities of boomer kids would not have been sanctioned by their parents had they known, surely all in the name of safety, but they did not know, and the kids weren’t going to tell them. There were occasional consequences to their actions, resulting in some blood, cracked teeth, shattered glasses and broken bones, but for the most part, the kids walked away from their fool-hardy tossing of safety caution. When these incidents occurred, the reaction of parents was often one of concern, but in the end, supportive healing and a lecture to not do whatever it was again was their response.

Helmets were never required for bicycle riding, there were no knee pads available at the sporting goods store, unless your child was to be a baseball catcher or hockey goalie, and a few bandages and a couple of broken bones were thought of as part of growing up. Safety was taught and older siblings might intervene in some instances, but it was up to each child to internalize the lesson to keep themselves safe.

By comparison, today’s helicopter parents are more like the cartoon drawing of the cowboy after regulatory assistance: it seems they would prefer to bubble wrap their children head to toe if they are to be allowed outside at all. Kids are often not allowed to be on their own these days. One of the things that made that possible in our boomer days was that most families had several kids. The oldest were often charged with watching the younger ones, so it was not unusual to see a group of kids ranging in age from seven to 16 all playing together. In retrospect, that may not have been the wisest thing for safety as the harebrained schemes of the older kids filtered down to the younger ones.

Today there are more than 100 million additional people in the U.S. than fifty years ago, and with more people come more problems — so some measure of caution is in order — yet Mister B feels that surely there is some middle ground that should be the target for keeping kids safe. Perhaps our boomer experiences were the extreme on the other end of the spectrum. It is true parents today have more to think about in terms of safety; add Internet safety to the list of usual kid safety themes of watching out for strangers, fire, electricity and water safety, bike safety, traffic safety and even playground safety. Nonetheless, Mister B feels sorry for today’s kids who can’t wander around, come across a stick with a nail it and have some fun for a few hours.

What was safety like for you, boomers?