Just a short while ago, like back in February, if you posted a photo of Mr. Potato Head “reading” a book by Dr. Seuss, you would most likely have received relatively innocuous comments along the lines of “Cute throwback pic, I had both of those as a kid!” or “I don’t get it, why is a potato reading a book? What’s the message?”
Post that same pic today and you’ll start a Twitter war.
Of course, Hasbro didn’t actually change Mr. Potato Head’s gender or take the “Mr.” from its name, nor did the Biden administration have anything to do with Seuss Enterprises pulling six books from its catalog. Hysterical reactions aside, seeing Mr. Potato Head and Dr. Seuss all over the news got me to thinking (here comes the segue!) about other toys and games with roots in the 20th century that would be problematic today — not due to political/social implications, but because they were dangerous and/or stupid.
Vac-U-Form by Mattel
Hey kids, how would you like to learn about the industrial process of vacuum forming! The Vac-U-Form was a metal machine with a hot plate on which you would place a piece of plastic that could be molded into forms such as a plane or a dolphin. That’s right: you’d plug it in, warm it up, and start heating plastic!
From Mattel’s 23-page instruction booklet, and they’re the ones using capital letters: “Allow the Vac-U-Form to warm up for 10 minutes. WHEN YOUR VAC-U-FORM IS NEW, THE HEATING CHAMBER WILL SMOKE FOR 5 TO 10 MINUTES THE FIRST TIME YOU TURN IT ON. THIS IS PERFECTLY NORMAL.”
Little Lady Hot Stove, Creepy Crawlers
In the same vein as the Vac-U-Form, there was the Little Lady Hot Stove, which looked like something out of a tenement apartment in a Nelson Algren novel, and reportedly generated more powerful heat than an actual, full-size kitchen stove; and Creepy Crawlers, which afforded the little ones the chance to pour a substance called “Plastigoop” into metal molds shaped like bugs and bake ’em until the noxious fumes filled the air.
Lawn Darts, aka Jarts
Even as kids, we knew it was a bad idea to play a version of horseshoes with small plastic round hoops as targets, and lawn darts with weighted metal tips. A study in the 1980s found that over an 8-year-period, more than 6,000 people had sustained injuries from lawn darts — half 10 or younger. David Snow of Riverside, California, successfully lobbied the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban the various lawn dart games. In 1987, Snow’s 7-year-old daughter, Michelle, had been killed when a lawn dart went sailing into Snow’s front yard and struck Michelle in the skull. Horrific.
At least the Sixfinger was just dumb, not potentially lethal. The boys in the TV ad chanted: “Sixfinger sixfinger sixfinger!” The Sixfinger was an index-finger-looking toy you’d hold in your hand to make it appear as if you had six digits. And the fake finger could fire projectiles! “It’s a secret weapon at your fingertip!” growled the ad’s narrator. “Fires cap-loaded bombs and they explode.”
Imagine some kid in 2021 walking into class and pointing his Sixfinger at classmates. The student would be sent home, the parent would write a 1,000-word post on Facebook, cable news would run with it, and off we’d go with the latest controversy…
This was basically a kids’ version of bolas, a weapon of choice for Argentine gauchos. Take two solid, heavy, acrylic balls, attach them to a leather string, and have the children swing the balls this way and that, making a loud CLACKING sound whenever they connected. Occasionally the balls would shatter or crack and pieces would go flying — or you’d just smash yourself in the face with ‘em. I’m surprised we didn’t see these used as a weapon in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1.”
Slip N’ Slides
The urban legend in my neighborhood was that some kid had done a belly flop on one of these cheap backyard water slides — and landed right on a pair of hedges. Never confirmed that one, but Wham-O! recalled millions of slides in the late 1990s after eight people suffered serious injuries due to sudden stops on a Slip N’ Slide.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission recommends that only children use the product, as larger people could sustain back and neck injuries.
And if our parents told us to stop playing with the Vac-U-Form or the clackers or the Sixfinger and get out of the house, we could always run down to the corner park and fly around on the monkey bars over a good two inches of sand, go way too fast on the rusty merry-go-round — or climb the Piano Slide, a large, metal contraption shaped like a piano opened at a dangerous angle.
The hottest temperature ever registered on Earth was 134.1 degrees on July 10, 1913, in Death Valley, California. That’s only because we didn’t have thermometers with us as we climbed the surface of the Piano Slide in the summer of 1972.