That George had been as good as gold,
She promised in the afternoon
To buy him an Immense BALLOON.
And so she did; but when it came,
It got into the candle flame,
And being of a dangerous sort
Exploded with a loud report!
The lights went out! The windows broke!
The room was filled with reeking smoke.
And in the darkness shrieks and yells
Were mingled with electric bells,
And falling masonry and groans,
And crunching, as of broken bones,
And dreadful shrieks, when, worst of all,
The house itself began to fall!
It tottered, shuddering to and fro,
Then crashed into the street below-
Which happened to be Savile Row.
When help arrived, among the dead
Were Cousin Mary, Little Fred,
The Footmen (both of them), the Groom,
The man that cleaned the Billiard-Room,
The Chaplain, and the Still-Room Maid.
And I am dreadfully afraid
That Monsieur Champignon, the Chef,
Will now be permanently deaf-
And both his aides are much the same;
While George, who was in part to blame,
Received, you will regret to hear,
A nasty lump behind the ear.
The moral is that little boys
Should not be given dangerous toys.
(“George, Who played with a Dangerous Toy, and suffered a Catastrophe of considerable Dimensions” by Hilaire Belloc)
Say what you will about us Baby Boomers - we did not lead boring lives in our Snot-Nose Days. Growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s meant that, unlike today, we had much more interesting playthings.
Beyond the fact that my parents were past masters at giving me completely inappropriate things with which to amuse myself, the shelves of toy stores were packed with goodies that would make the eyeballs of most modern parents bug out in the manner of a Tex Avery cartoon.
There was, for example, the Gilbert Chemistry Set.
Chemistry sets, as far as I know, still exist, but nowadays they don’t include any chemicals more interesting than distilled white vinegar, baking soda, and hydrogen peroxide. Certainly, there’s nothing that will blow up, burn the house down, or give you anything more than a minor stomach ache if you were to eat the entire jar. Booooooring.
Old-school chemistry sets used to have all kinds of cool stuff. There was sulfur, which you could heat in a test tube (using the handy alcohol lamp provided) so as to watch it melt and change colors from yellow to orange to red to black, all the while making the entire house reek of brimstone as though Satan himself had taken a dump on the kitchen table. There was potassium ferrocyanide, which - aside from having real cyanide in it - could be used to make Prussian blue, an indelible dye that could fuck up your Mom’s best tablecloth from ten paces.
If they sold a chemistry set like that today, they’d have to require prospective purchasers to sign a disclaimer as thick as a Gawd-damned phone book. (Do they still make phone books?) Can you imagine modern parents giving little Johnny and Susie a bunch of weird chemicals, a handful of test tubes, and a frickin’ source of open flame and telling them, “Now go and play - try not to burn the house down”?
But there was more.
Mattel, beloved manufacturer of Barbie dolls and a myriad other childhood delights, used to be big into the Cap Pistol, a favorite of boys since, ahhh, I dunno, the invention of gunpowder, probably.
Cap pistols used a roll of caps - little blobs of pressure-sensitive explosive encapsulated between two layers of paper - to simulate the BANG! sound of an actual pistol, a sound that would add a veneer of authenticity to the daily grind of playing Cowboys and Native Americans. But Mattel, innovators that they were, took the Cap Pistol to the next level with their Shootin’ Shells, which were little spring-loaded cartridges with plastic bullets, and their Greenie Stik-M Caps.
Mattel Shootin’ Shell toy pistols were about as close as you could get to a real projectile weapon short of actually owning a BB gun or making a zip gun in shop class. Certainly it was as close as I ever got, and even that was surprising, given the generally liberal sensibilities in my home growing up. Good Gawd, can you imagine kids in today’s hyper-litigious times being given toy guns that actually make noise (hearing loss!), fire little projectiles (you'll shoot your eye out! choking hazard!), and even smell of actual gunpowder (toxic fumes!)? I think not.
This is not to say that there are no Playtime Hazards out there today. You can still do some serious damage with model rockets, especially if you have a destructive bent... but those aren’t so much toys as Little Science Projects, the use and operation of which is typically highly controlled. But back in the day, chemistry sets and cap pistols were honest-to-Gawd toys, the kind of things that little kids were turned loose to play with all day with little or no supervision.
How ever did we manage to survive our childhoods?