Written by Nicholas Suarez
Children are easily amused, which is probably why we still have an audience. These days, child entertainment largely consists of giving them an iPad and leaving them to navigate the internet on their own, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Sure, your grandpa might talk about how he and his friends would explore the woods behind his house on their own, but did he ever find himself on the weird parts of the Internet with no guidance from mom and dad? I don’t think so.
Before the age of social media, the top dog in kid’s fun was toys. You all know what toys are, so we’re not going to explain that, but… well, you know how sometimes media aimed at kids can be a little… age inappropriate? Perhaps because it was designed by an adult, not a kid? Well, it turns out that a lot of older toys were just straight up not on the level, ranging from subjectively inappropriate to objectively dangerous. Today we have just a short list for you of some seriously inappropriate toys.
The Atomic Energy Lab
Science, all things considered, can be pretty fun, especially if you remove all of the math. But even that can be interesting if you’re dedicated to the subject, and what better way to get people dedicated to it than by showing them just how interesting it is? With that in mind, science kits are a pretty good toy to get for a kid. It’s fun, interactive, and gets children interested in everything from chemistry to physics. And speaking of physics, it’s worth noting that our understanding of physics has come a long way in the last few decades, particularly with a certain subset of the subject, nuclear physics.
This brings us to a man named Alfred Carlton Gilbert, an American toy-maker and businessman who, following the end of World War II and the beginning of the Atomic Era, hit upon the genius idea to create a special science kit on nuclear physics. According to him, the U.S. government encouraged the idea, with the hope that more young people would become interested in nuclear science, the technology of the future. And so, in 1950, with the supposed help of some of the best nuclear physicists in America, Gilbert and co. designed and released for sale the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory, a nuclear science kit complete with… a completely real chunk of radioactive Uranium 238.
But don’t worry, kids: the uranium ore is sealed in some sample jars, so none of the material could really be dangerous to you. Just don’t break the seals, because, according to the directions, “they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory.” And, of course, that would raise the level of the background radiation, which might ruin your experiment! Oh, and you might taste copper, don’t worry about that, it’s normal.
As shocking as it might sound that radioactive material was being sold in a children’s science kit, it actually wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds. Uranium 238 naturally emits so-called alpha particles, through a process called alpha decay. Alpha particles are generally not considered dangerous, because unlike the much more dangerous gamma rays, they aren’t strong enough to pass through skin, or even thick clothing. The only way alpha particles could seriously hurt you is if you inhaled or ingested them, so… just don’t do that. Still, given that children are notorious for putting anything and everything inside their mouths, if anyone could get radiation sickness from alpha particles, it would be a small child.
In addition, our understanding of nuclear physics, especially its limitations and drawbacks, weren’t as refined back then. Don’t misunderstand, no one was saying, “Bah, a little radiation sickness builds character.” They knew it was bad; deadly, in fact. Two of the top nuclear scientists on the Manhattan Project had actually been killed in so-called “criticality accidents”. But many people believed that nuclear power would soon be ubiquitous enough that it would power cars, planes, and perhaps even your kitchen appliances.
Obviously, that didn’t happen, but even at the time, some people called Gilbert’s Uranium Lab a dangerous object, prompting him to defend the kit in his autobiography, saying it was safe. Whether that was actually true or not is basically impossible to know, because the kit sold less than 5000 units during its two-year run. You could chalk that up to people being wise towards the idea of bringing radioactive uranium into their homes, but the truth is probably just that the thing cost $530 in today’s money and nobody was going to pay for that. Except New York’s Columbia University, which reportedly bought five of them for its physics lab.
Minstrel Dolls and Makeup Kits
Our next entry will have us talking about a somewhat more lighthearted subject than radiation poisoning, and that is race relations in the United States. Yay.
Let’s go back to the 19th century, to discuss a bit of history. In the US, back then there emerged a style of live performances called “minstrel shows”, whereby white actors would use makeup to turn their faces dark, in order to play characters that were black. This is known as “blackface”, and it’s generally considered not a good thing to do. This is because these minstrel shows, where the practice originated, were known for portraying inaccurate caricatures of African Americans to their white audiences; uneducated, always happy, naturally gifted musicians, exaggerated physical features, etc. This was considered only moderately racist for the time, by the way.
Nowadays, we have made at least a degree of progress in this regard, and blackface is considered a taboo thing to do for everyone that isn’t a child on Halloween, or a Prime Minister of Canada, or a former Governor of Virginia, or a former Lieutenant Governor of Virginia… okay, maybe we haven’t made that much progress, then. It would certainly explain why you used to be able to buy dolls of those same blackface minstrels to give to your kids, or little makeup kits for your kids to play pretend as a blackface minstrel. Indeed, in some cases, you still can buy those things.
The origins of blackface toys begins with a woman named Florence Kate Upton, a British author in New York who, inspired by the same minstrel shows, created a character in her books named, “Golliwog”, a portmanteau of the words “golly” and “pollywog”. That’s the only time we’ll be using the word, since it’s considered by some to be a slur. The character is heavily based on the minstrelsy tradition, right down to the jet-black colored skin, unkempt hair, and large red lips. Depending on how old you are, or where you’re from, it may be uncomfortable just to look at it.
But when it was released, the character became extremely popular, just like the minstrel shows it was based on. In particular, the toy became a hit in the United Kingdom and its overseas territories. And they continued to be popular right up through the 20th century, with dolls, drink mats, quilts, and more besides being sold. One British jam company, James Robertson & Sons, even used it as the mascot for the company up until the 1980s. It’s no surprise, then, that dolls and children’s books featuring the character were available for sale then.
Today, it’s a bit harder to find these particular toys, for obvious reasons, but the controversy surrounding blackface is surprisingly more divided than other subjects on race, particularly between America and Europe. For example, the Netherlands still has a Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, which involves using blackface. To many Dutch people, this isn’t offensive, but to many Americans, it causes a bit of whiplash. In addition, in 2018, a poll was taken by YouGov, a polling outfit, which found that three-fifths of British people didn’t consider the minstrel dolls to be racist, with a further one-fifth being not sure.
So, is blackface racist? In Europe, probably; in America, definitely. But if you’re a parent, and you aren’t sure if your child should be allowed to darken their face for a Halloween costume, what should you do? Perhaps this will settle the debate for you: that former Virginia governor is currently listed under the “See Also” section of the Wikipedia page for blackface. If you’d be okay with your child possibly ending up there, too, by all means – let them black up.
We’re kind of cheating with this entry, because it’s not really a “toy”, per se. But it’s marketed for children, and it fits the theme, and it’s also our list, so… fight me.
Back in the day, the negative health effects of tobacco weren’t common knowledge. Cigarettes were more or less ubiquitous, and some advertisements for tobacco products even went so far as to call them healthy habits for hard-working adults, without a hint of irony. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that some confectionary companies got the idea to make cigarettes, but as a candy, for children. Yeah.
They used to be a very popular product. They first appeared in the 1880s, when the Hershey’s chocolate company started making chocolate branded everything. One of the products they came up with was so-called “chocolate smokes”, which just sounds gross. Soon, they were almost as popular among kids as actual cigarettes were among adults. Even NECCO, the company that makes the sugar wafers that every American knows about, used to produce candy cigarettes, which somehow isn’t that surprising.
Strangely enough, tobacco companies weren’t entirely cool with this. More than once, tobacco companies sued candy companies for manufacturing candy cigarettes that looked similar to their own branded cigarettes, citing trademark infringement. Candy companies often countered back by saying that real cigarettes were poisonous, unlike their sugared candy versions.
That’s partly true. Candy cigarettes aren’t malicious in their own right; they’re just chalky sugar sticks, basically. But scratch the surface and it quickly becomes worse than just bad candy. For starters, in the later part of the 20th century, candy companies began to cooperate with tobacco companies, with the tobacco companies allowing the use of their brands for the candy packages. In many cases, the branding was nearly identical between the candy version and the smoking version. In addition, some brands came with a red ring on one end to imitate a lit cigarette, or a bit of powdered sugar hidden in the wrapper, allowing the person using it to “smoke” by blowing into the stick. Forget “on the nose”, that’s past the nose and right into the lungs.