7 Dangerous and Deadly Toys From History

Bounce at your own risk.
Bounce at your own risk. / Ambre Haller/Moment/Getty Images

From lawn darts to strange science kits, we’re rummaging through the world’s most dangerous toy box in this list adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube. Be warned: Some of these stories are tragic.

1. Lawn Darts

In the 1970s and much of the ‘80s, kids throwing deadly projectiles around the backyard was considered good, clean fun. Lawn darts, or Jarts, were a sort of a cross between traditional pub darts and horseshoes that involved players tossing large, weighted metal darts with plastic fins up in the air to try to hit targets placed at specific distances across the yard.

It doesn’t take a psychic to predict that children haphazardly hurling pointy projectiles across their lawns could go bad in a hurry—and unfortunately, one California family found that out firsthand. In 1987, a 9-year-old boy stumbled across some lawn darts—part of an outdoor game set that his dad had purchased—in his family garage. The boy and some neighborhood friends took the darts to the backyard to play, and it wasn’t long before an overzealous throw launched one of the mini missiles over the fence. The dart came down directly into the skull of the boy’s 7-year-old sister, who had been playing in the front yard with her dolls. Some researchers estimated that the dart hit her with a force of up to 23,000 pounds per square inch. She collapsed soon after and died three days later. 

The tragedy spurred her father to launch a crusade against Lawn Darts. In response to his lobbying, the Consumer Product Safety Commission conducted research that uncovered more than 6100 lawn dart-related injuries in less than a decade; more than 80 percent of those injuries happened to children ages 15 or younger, and many of those injuries caused permanent damage to their head, eyes, or face.

With such damning evidence, Jarts were pulled from U.S. stores weeks before Christmas in 1988, and Canada soon followed suit. They’ve been banned in both countries ever since, although a spikeless version has found its way back to summer barbecues and backyard gatherings in recent years. 

2. Trampolines

A boy wearing a hula hoop jumps on a trampoline, ca. 1955
A boy wearing a hula hoop jumps on a trampoline, ca. 1955. / Kirn Vintage Stock/GettyImages

Trampoline: The word that strikes fear into the heart of every insurance-paying homeowner. But long before these bouncy platforms could be found in suburban backyards, they came to life in the brain of 16-year-old gymnast George Nissen, who became fascinated with the safety nets used under the trapeze after he visited a circus in 1930. He attempted to recreate the net’s spring by dismantling his bed and stretching canvas across the frame, much to the dismay of his father. Many prototypes later, the U.S. military used Nissen’s invention during WWII to help train pilots to orient themselves after air maneuvers. NASA later adopted the trampoline to help astronauts with conditioning for space. 

But it’s not these applications that generally result in injury—it’s the backyard version that contributes most to the 100,000 trampoline-related injuries that occur yearly. Most injuries happen when there are multiple kids getting their jump on, which may also explain the increase in injuries at trampoline parks. 

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks an arm—but unfortunately, a busted arm is one of the more minor trampoline injuries kids can experience. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, stunts gone bad can result in permanent cervical spine injuries. 

3. Slip ‘N Slide

During the summer of 1960, Robert Carrier returned home from work to find that his son and some friends had turned the hose on their painted concrete driveway, creating a rudimentary waterslide on the sloped surface. Convinced they were going to hurt themselves on the concrete, Carrier soon constructed a similar setup out of some vinyl-coated boat upholstery material and sewed a tube down the side for a hose. 

The simple yet ingenious invention was sold to the Wham-O company and released in 1961. By September, more than 300,000 slides had been sold. Soon, injuries started rolling in—and it wasn’t just kids who were getting hurt. While some children were injured, those injuries mostly amounted to bumps and bruises, with a few sad exceptions. For adults, the consequences of taking a trip down the Slip ‘N Slide tended to be much more serious. Because adults weigh more, they didn’t glide across the slick surface as easily as children. Instead, they had a tendency to stop abruptly, causing the forward momentum to drive their body weight into their necks. 

In extreme cases, this could—and did—result in neck injuries, quadriplegia, paraplegia, and even death. Reported injuries included at least six adults who suffered broken necks, an 8-year-old who suffered brain damage, at least one death in the 1970s, and 5000 Slip ‘N Slide-related injuries in 1988 alone. People were awarded millions of dollars for their injuries.

The takeaway? Heed the age limits printed on the box. They’re there for a reason.

4. Lead-Painted Toys

Three lead golf caddy figures circa the 1930s.
Lead golf caddy figures from the 1930s. / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Victorian kids had it pretty rough to begin with—according to the BBC, kids in 1850s England and Wales had a 25 percent chance of dying before reaching the age of 5. That astronomical mortality rate can be attributed to a lot of things, including several cholera outbreaks. But toys coated in lead paint certainly didn’t help matters—and if their toys weren’t coated in lead, then they were often made entirely of lead

To be clear, we’ve been aware that lead is bad for a really long time—even the ancient Romans knew it. Toy manufacturers continued to use the metal because of its versatility, however, and most people believed that minimizing their exposure was enough prevention. In fact, many people considered daily exposure to lead relatively safe as long as the levels were low. As we now know, that thinking was flawed. 

While we don’t know exactly how many kids have died after ingesting lead from a toxic toy, we do know that it can still happen today. In 2006, a 4-year-old boy from Minneapolis died from poisoning after putting a lead-laced trinket in his mouth. It is illegal for toys to contain more than .06 percent concentration of lead, by weight, in their paints or coatings and has been since 1978, but that doesn’t mean toys with higher concentrations aren’t out there. In 2007, Mattel’s Fisher-Price recalled 1.5 million toys after the Consumer Product Safety Commission alleged the company had imported and sold toys that tested for high levels of lead, in some cases 180 times higher than the legal limit. The company paid $2.3 million in civil penalties in 2009 but denied breaking any laws.

5. “Gun Fighter” Toy Cork Gun

In 1976 and ‘77, Eagle Family Discount Stores in Florida, Georgia, and Alabama offered the “Gun Fighter” Toy Cork Gun for the bargain price of just $1.27. Of course, kids are known for dismantling things, so it didn’t take long for them to discover that they could remove the muzzle from the gun barrel and then take off the protective plastic plunger caps underneath, which exposed the ends of two metal rods. If the cork gun was then discharged, the exposed metal rods would shoot forward, potentially causing them to be propelled directly into a child’s face or eyes—and a 3-year-old boy did exactly that. The guns were recalled in 1979.

6. Atomic Laboratory Kits

The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory
The Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Laboratory. / Kulmalukko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Lead toys seem downright quaint when you consider that one of the main components of the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab toy was uranium. Released in 1950, the kit provided kids with everything they needed to conduct more than 150 experiments—including four types of uranium ore and beta-alpha, beta, and gamma radiation sources. Fun instruments that came in the lab included a cloud chamber, a device for watching atoms decay, and your very own Geiger counter. The 60-page instruction booklet offered a guide to prospecting for uranium.

It was known at this time that uranium was radioactive and that radiation was harmful. In 1927, Hermann Joseph Muller discovered that radiation can cause harmful mutations; he won a Nobel Prize for related research in 1946. Even so, uranium was included in this kit four years later; the makers must have thought this strongly-worded warning was sufficient: “Users should not take ore samples out of their jars, for they tend to flake and crumble and you would run the risk of having radioactive ore spread out in your laboratory.” 

Apparently, the warning wasn’t enough to stop the Atomic Energy Lab from getting shelved; it was pulled in 1951 after selling less than 5000 kits.

7. Zulu Toy Gun

It’s hard to know where to start with the number of things wrong with the “Zulu Toy Gun,” sold in the late 1960s, but how about this quote from an ad for the toy: “A slight puff into gun and arrow shoots with hurricane speed.” Not only did children load dangerous projectiles like needles into the gun, they also had a tendency to inhale deeply before blowing out to shoot. A surge of plastic dart inhalations plagued ERs around the country. In 1969, the National Commission on Product Safety rightly recommended that the toy be banned—despite the “HARMLESS” proclamation that was once boldly printed on the box.