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Once on children's wish lists, hazardous toys are on display in a museum


A toy exhibition at a museum in Northern California is evoking nostalgia. It's showcasing old-school toys considered problematic today but were once high up on many kids' wish lists. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED had a chance to visit the Dangerous Games exhibit at the Napa Valley Museum.

CHLOE VELTMAN, BYLINE: The Dangerous Games exhibition is crammed with 20th-century notions of kiddie fun that would make any prudent 21st-century parent sick with worry.


VELTMAN: There are toys that can shatter, like Clackers, the inspiration for a 1976 "Saturday Night Live" skit...


CANDICE BERGEN: (As character) Well, we'd like to show you another one of Mr. Mainway's products. It retails for $1.98. And it's called Bag O' Glass.


VELTMAN: ...And toys containing radioactive substances, like the 1950s Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab, complete with real uranium. And then there were toys that can cause third-degree burns.

LAURA RAFATY: You basically put incredibly toxic goo into a searing hot mold.

VELTMAN: Exhibition curator Laura Rafaty is talking about Mattel's Thingmaker.

RAFATY: Then you can also chase your siblings through the house with the searing hot metal trays.

VELTMAN: After the toy was discontinued in 1973, safer versions were released. But Rafaty says they weren't as much fun. This is partly what inspired her to create this show, which has attracted more than six times as many adults as kids since it's opened in September.

RAFATY: We've lost a lot of the innocence that we had when we were able to run through the house with a searing hot metal plate, not having to be afraid all the time.

VELTMAN: Grafton Tanner is the author of a new book about nostalgia. He says most people get the warm and fuzzies about the past because it seemed safer than the present. But visitors to the Napa Valley Museum seem to romanticize the dangers of the postwar period instead.

GRAFTON TANNER: People can be nostalgic for various reasons. It doesn't necessarily have to be for a time that was, like, safe and cozy. It could be for a time that was rough and dangerous.

VELTMAN: By some measures, toys have become safer. A recent U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report says toy-related injuries for nearly all age groups fell between 2013 and 2020. Yet the risks persist.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Watch out for toys that encourage kids to stand and play, like pogo sticks, skate swings, two-footed hoverboards...

VELTMAN: Videos like this one, from the non-profit World Against Toys Causing Harm, raised the alarm about precarious toys. And some parents who visited the Napa Valley Museum show, like local mom Amme Perry, say the hazards haven't really diminished.

AMME PERRY: Instead of getting chemicals in a science set, now they can go online and see whatever they wanted, and you would never know.

VELTMAN: Parents like Perry recognize there's only so much they can control, and the history of toy-making suggests that a little risk might not be such a bad thing. Take the Frisbee.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) This is the way to curve a Frisbee.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) This is the way to curve a Frisbee.

VELTMAN: The game has become a staple of outdoor family fun since the 1950s, despite the fact getting hit in the face by a flying disc made of hard plastic is no fun at all. Andy Fusso is a former employee of frisbee-maker Wham-O. He says the company worked on a more forgiving, wobbly rubber model, but the product never made it to market.

ANDY FUSSO: The frisbee that was rigid enough to fly would hurt you if it hits you in the face, and a frisbee that was nice and soft and wouldn't hurt you in the face wouldn't fly.

VELTMAN: Fusso says customers don't necessarily always want total safety.

FUSSO: On one side of the gradient, you don't want the bag of glass, but the other side, you want something that's a little bit edgy.

VELTMAN: Fusso says finding a balance allows room for discovery in children and fertile ground for nostalgia when they grow up.

For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman.


Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.