Woodburners and Vacuforms

Toys may be more violent than they used to be — I’m not sure it’s a good idea, for example, to expose children in their “formative years” to the mindless violence of video games like Grand Theft Auto — but I think they are much safer than they used to be. A kid playing a video game is not likely to sustain an injury much worse than a thumb sprain. When I was growing up, on the other hand, toys — or even a visit to the playground, with its “monkey bars” and acres of asphalt — involved significantly greater risks of physical injury.

As a kid I had three toys that now seem, in retrospect, extraordinarily dangerous. One was a “woodburner” kit. The woodburner was like a pen that plugged into the wall and became red hot. After the device became red hot, you could use it to burn designs into wood — or if you weren’t careful, into the table on which you were working, the carpet, or your arm. The box the kit came in showed kids my age presenting their beaming mothers with beautiful renderings of flowers or dogs. Who were those guys? I never managed anything better than the crudest stick-figure type drawings. (In that respect, the woodburning kit was similar to an Etch-A-Sketch, which required the deftness and touch of a safecracker.) And, of course, once you messed up while burning your artwork into a plank, the plank itself was useless. I could burn through enough wood to build Noah’s Ark without producing any artwork that even remotely resembled a recognizable object. The woodburning kit ultimately proved to be good for only three things — burning your initials into the bottom of your Louisville Slugger, showing your friends how you could hold the woodburner close enough to your forearm to cause the hairs to shrivel away yet not burn your flesh, and producing a very cool smell.

Another toy was called the Vacuform. Like the woodburning kit, the Vacuform was based on the concept that growing boys would like toys that featured extreme heat. The Vacuform consisted of a plug-in device to which you attach iron molds; after the molds became sufficiently heated you would place squares of plastic on the iron mold and the plastic would assume the shape of the mold — say, a race car or a jet plane. Then, you were supposed to paint the plastic, apply decals, and end up with a cheap plastic toys much crappier looking than a ready-made Hot Wheels. With a heating unit, melted plastic, and paint in close proximity, what bad could happen? That toy could have been dreamed up by Irwin Mainway, the character played by Dan Aykroyd who used to be exposed on the original Saturday Night Live for selling kids toys called “bag of glass” or “invisible pedestrian.”

The last toy was closely analogous to the Vacuform, in that it featured electricity , a heating unit, and metal molds. In this case, though, the molds were indented with the shapes of spiders, snakes, and other scary creatures, and you were supposed to fill it with a rubbery goo that would harden after being heated and assume the shape of the mold. Then, you could use the spiders and snakes to scare your sisters and girls in the neighborhood. The end product, though, didn’t really looks like a real spider or snake, because you inevitably poured too much of the goo into the mold, and as a result the legs of the spider, for example, would be connected by a translucent sheen of plastic that you were supposed to trim off with a knife. Apparently, the heating unit and rubbery goo weren’t sufficiently dangerous, so the toymaker had to add knives to the equation as well.

The striking thing about all of these toys is not only that they seem awfully dangerous, but also that — especially when viewed from the perspective of an age where self-esteem is viewed as so important to child development — they were carefully designed to make most kids feel like abject failures. It’s hard to believe that any normal boy was able to produce anything of value with any of these toys. On the other hand, one can easily imagine Nikita Khrushchev chuckling gleefully and rubbing his hands together at the success of a plot that caused thousands of American youth to be maimed, physically disfigured, or psychologically crippled by these diabolical devices.

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