Come along with us as we blast to the past, and explore vintage toys that your older relatives most likely played with as a child, that were unsafe or just downright dangerous. From contaminated toys before regulations were put in place to a radioactive learning set, these toys definitely should not have been intended to be used by children.
Atomic Energy Laboratory
In 1951, A. C. Gilbert Company also steals our number one spot, with its Atomic Energy Lab set, which contained three radioactive sources; a U-239 Geiger counter, Wilson Cloud chamber, a spinthariscope, fours samples of uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. Being sold for $50, equivalent to $350 in today's economy, this set never grew to great popularity and eventually stopped its production in 1952. Due to lack of knowledge on the dangers of radioactive materials, this childrens toy may never have been produced as we now know that exposure to U-238 isotope is linked to cancer, leukemia, lymphoma, and other nasty diseases.
Gilbert Chemistry Kit
Another children's educational toy made by A. C. Gilbert Company, the Gilbert Chemistry Kit was marketed as kid friendly and safe. Among its 56 chemicals included within the kit were some potentially dangerous stuff, such as potassium permanganate, which was poisonous and had been known to make things catch fire. Or ammonium nitrate, a chemical the U.S. is trying to regulate due to its use in homemade bombs. Within the kit's own instruction manual, there was an experiment labeled "How to make an explosive mixture" explaining its similarities to gun powder. At the bottom of this experiment was a warning for kids not to attempt the mixture on a larger scale, but come on, you tell a kid not to do something, and what's the first thing they do?
Austin Magic Pistol
Made by Austin Manufacturing Company in Port Austin, Michigan in the late 1940s to early 1950s, this toy boasted the ability to shoot a pink or white hard plastic ball up to 100 feet or 30 meters. The "magic crystals" mixed with water would propel the projectiles by an explosion of gas produced in the chamber at the back of the barrel when ignited by the pull of the trigger. Calcium Carbide is identified as the "magic crystals" this toy gun used, which becomes extremely flammable acetylene gas when mixed with a few drops of water. Highly collectible nowadays, this is because not too many survived intact due to them rupturing or exploding during firing, and the fact that many states now classify it as a firearm because it uses a chemical reaction to propel a projectile. Its design was most likely inspired by the hero in its time, Buck Rogers.
Gilbert Glass Blowing Kit
Introduced in the 1920s, one would have to understand that glassblowing was considered a useful skill in the past, where most universities required its chemistry students to make their own test tubes. Secondly, it's important to note that in order to change the shape of glass, it must first reach its softening point, which could exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. According to burnfoundation.org, third degree burns can occur in 1 second with hot water at 156 degrees Fahrenheit, now also take in consideration that a child's delicate skin will burn quicker than an adult. One experiment within its instruction manual involved blowing through a tube to create a glass bubble; letting a child do this, how could anything go wrong?
Steam Propelled "Dribbler" Locomotives
The first steam-propelled floor locomotives were offered by Clyde Model Dockyard in 1789, and subsequently spurred other companies and people to improve on the design. Stevens Model Dockyard are well known for their models of steam driven locomotives, boats and boilers, but we are going to focus on the Birmingham Dribbler. This model, introduced around 1890, had a burner consisting of a chunk of cotton wadding soaked in alcohol held in place beneath the boiler by a steel clip. The boiler would then be filled halfway with water and the cotton lit to produce steam, which in turn moved the locomotive forward. But wait, it gets better. Most of these steam powered locomotives were called "dripplers", or "piddlers" for a reason, as they tend to leave a trail of water mixed with the fuel used for the burner as they moved. Often tipping over when crashing into furniture, this could leave a devastating trail of destruction in a home.
Gilbert Molten Lead Casting Kit
Known as the Gilbert Kaster Kit, this apparatus appeared in 1931 and allowed children to make their own metal-cast figurines by heating lead to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and pouring it into molds. As we mentioned earlier, lead is a toxic heavy metal that can pose serious health risks, but add the fact that using this kit required a child to heat lead to a liquid, only spells disaster if a mishap were to occur. Much like the Thing-Maker line, the A.C. Gilbert Company also sold various other molds separately, which included designs for military figures, sports figures, animals, planes, trains, automobiles, and more. The first design of the Gilbert Kaster Kit wasn't electric, using an alternate heating source to produce figurines, but later evolved to an electrical heated melting receptacle and larger base.
Wham-O Air Blaster
This toy's shelf-life was short lived in 1965, and a novel idea for a toy gun that didn't require constant reloading of ammo. With a few simple pumps of a plastic lever, this filled the firearm with compressed air, and was released through its funnel-shaped barrel up to 20 feet or 6 meters in distance, although the original television ad claimed up to 40 feet or 12 meters. Unfortunately, more nefarious kids figured out that "dangerous objects" could be loaded into the barrel and shot from the Air Blaster. Although this was not the only concern, as there were fears that it could damage the ear drum if shot too close to the ear. Eventually this gun was replaced by a gentler version which shot rubber darts, called the Huf'n Puf blowgun.
Working Toy Ovens, Irons, etc.
Marketed to girls from the 1920's and decades following, stores sold children sized irons, ovens, waffle makers, coffee pots and other kitchen appliances under names like Little Lady, Sunny Suzi or Little Deb. We're sure that we don't have to explain how hazardous this can be, as we all still burn our fingers or hands from time to time on our own appliances, but if you are still not convinced, an ad from one such kids iron claimed no danger of burning little hands although it could reach 250 degrees Fahrenheit, which is 38 degrees past the boiling point of water. Several different companies marketed appliances to girls through the years, but the one most will recognize is the Easy-Bake Oven, which was discontinued as Federal energy conservation regulations phased out the 100-watt bulb it used.
First released in 1964, they were known as "Thingmakers", and each kit came with die-cast metal molds of various bugs and bug-like creatures, an electric hot plate, instructions, and different colored bottles of Plastigoop. These die-cast metal molds would eventually expand to other molds, such as fighting men, flowers, and dragons. By early to mid 1970, the Mattel Thing-Maker was removed from the market due to safety concerns, as the heaters would reach temperatures of 300-350 degrees Fahrenheit, where kids would reach for the hot molds instead of using the wire extractor handles. ToyMax would eventually revive the Thing-Maker line by redesigning the heating unit and adding a plastic door that would not open until the mold cooled sufficiently. People also complained about smells created during the heating of the Plastigoop, which may have lead some to think Plastigoop was toxic, and although we have found no evidence to these claims, it likely derives from the knowledge that most toys contained toxins before regulations were put in place in 1978.
Vintage toys are still in use today by some families, unaware that they may pose a health risk to their children as many older toys frequently contain toxic heavy metals, particularly lead and cadmium, and in concentrations that exceed current regulations. Degradation of these toys through time release small plastic particles, paint flakes, embedded metals or metal compounds, exposing any that may come in contact with them. Many older toys before 1978 were cast in lead or decorated with lead paint, but it wasn't until 2011 when accessible parts of toys was reduced to 100 parts per million, or 90 parts per million in paint or similar surface coatings. Some toys that were tested were barbies, little people sets, and my little pony figures, where pigments appeared to be the major culprit containing these toxins. Although many countries have restrictions now on the acceptable levels of toxins in toys, some imported toys are still exceeding these levels and are being distributed to the public.