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By Jim Ignasher
Imagine Christmas in a time before the world was bubble-wrapped for our protection; a time before the words “product liability” had ever been paired together; a time when Santa Claus brought toys that could literally put out an eye, make one sick, and burn down the house – at that was just for starters. To be fair, there was no malice on the big guy’s part, he was only bringing kids what they’d asked for, and parents didn’t seem to mind.
I considered this a couple of months ago when I was in a local antique store and came across a toy from my childhood called “Creepy Crawlers”, which involved pouring “Plastic Goop” into open steel molds shaped like various insects and inserting them into a scalding hot “Thing Maker” which was basically an open, unprotected, hot plate. Burnt fingers were a given, as was the potential for fire – but hey, that was half the fun.
Every year around Christmas time product safety organizations post warnings about potentially dangerous toys, but what qualifies as “dangerous” today would seem tame, even laughable, in the times of Christmas past. A case in point are the lyrics from the popular Christmas carol, “Up On The Housetop” that go, “Here is a hammer with lots of tacks, also a ball, and a whip that cracks.” A hammer and tacks? A whip that cracks? Who could foresee anyone getting hurt playing with those things? The carol, by the way, was written in 1864, about a year after Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harpers Weekly, drew the first rendition of what would become the modern Santa Claus we’ve come to know today – but more on that later.
Despite 19th century images of Santa doling out toy rifles, (with bayonets), and metal swords as gifts, toys of the 1800s were relatively safe compared to what came later, even when one considers the lead-based paint used on everything.
“Jacks” were a popular stocking stuffer, and so long as there were no bare feet in the vicinity puncture wounds were generally avoided.
And later came the iconic “little red wagon” – perfect for coasting down a hill. Never mind the lack of brakes, seatbelts, or less than reliable steering.
By the early 1900s things started to get a little more interesting. In the 1920s and 30s there was a company that produced what today might be loosely called “Craft-kits” that were aimed at a children’s market. One was a glass blowing kit, which as one might guess involved molten glass. The other involved melting lead in a small caldron and pouring it into molds to make toy soldiers. Kind of makes “Creepy Crawlers” sound safe, doesn’t it?
For the aspiring junior scientist there were companies which produced “chemistry sets” that included an array of toxic powdery substances that would likely initiate a haz-mat response today. Some of these were still being sold in the 1960s!
Yet the chemistry sets were nothing compared to the 1950s “Atomic Energy Lab” that included actual radioactive material! (“Look mom, I glow in the dark!”)
Other fun stuff included bow and arrow sets. The arrows were actually wooden dowels made “safe” by rubber suction cups attached to the ends. Of course it didn’t take long for some enterprising kids to discover that the suction cups could be easily removed, and the dowel inserted into a pencil sharpener so that some “real” archery could take place. (“Hey guys, watch me shoot an apple off my brother’s head!”)
Does anyone recall playing with “Lawn Darts”? It was a game similar to Horseshoes, only with big metal darts. They’ve gone the way of “Moon Shoes”, (Mini trampolines worn on the feet.), and “Clackers”, which were two acrylic balls connected by a string that when banged together made a “clacking” sound. Unfortunately the balls tended to shatter thus sending shards of shrapnel in all directions.
Getting back to Thomas Nast and his depiction of Santa; early illustrations showed Santa smoking a pipe, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the tobacco companies who before long incorporated the jolly elf’s image to promote smoking for the holidays. By World War II advertisers had Santa promoting special holiday decorated cartons of cigarettes – a great gift for dad. Tobacco aside, Santa’s image was also used by the beer and liquor companies to promote a little holiday cheer. “May your days be merry and bright.”
As stated earlier, Santa was only bringing kids what they’d asked for, yet at least in one instance he knew where to draw the line. I’m reminded of the 1983 movie, “A Christmas Story” where the man character, Ralphie Parker, wants a Red Ryder BB-gun for Christmas. When he finally blurts out his request to a department store Santa, the answer isn’t what he’d hoped for.
Santa replies, “You’ll shoot your eye out kid!”
And just how safe are the toys Santa brings today? Well, despite all that manufacturers have learned about not giving radioactive, scalding hot, molten metal to children to play with, some toys still have potential to cause injury, even if it’s not the toy manufacturer’s fault. Several years ago I was at a friend’s house on Christmas Eve when his son received a remote-control helicopter.
“Make sure you don’t fly that in the house!” his father warned.
“I won’t.” his son replied.
The lad took the toy to his room, and not three minutes later the helicopter came buzzing through the living room and crashed into the ceiling fan. Ooops!
When I think of my youth I sometimes wonder how my generation ever made it to adulthood. We played on asphalt playgrounds and in the street, didn’t wear bike helmets, handled mercury from broken thermometers, and used bed sheets for parachutes when jumping from the roof. (Well, some of us did.) Therefore, is it any wonder that Santa thought we’d be perfectly fine with a “Thing Maker”?