How Safe Were Toy Lab Sets in the 1950s?

Every kid wants to have lifelike toys and realistic games, but some aspiring young scientists in the 1950s were offered a little more than they could handle ... or more than they should have been handling, at least.

Concerns about toy safety were less of an issue in the 1950s, which allowed toy lab kits like the uranium-containing Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab to be sold.
Concerns about toy safety were less of an issue in the 1950s, which allowed toy lab kits like the uranium-containing Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab to be sold.

In 1950, the A.C. Gilbert Co. marketed the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, complete with a Geiger counter, 60-page manual, cloud chamber, electroscope ... and four jars containing uranium ore samples. While the instructions warned against opening the jars, the concern wasn't as much about danger as about getting inaccurate readings.

At the time, the dangers of radiation weren't widely understood, and toy safety was not the concern it is today. In that regard, it's probably a good thing that the kit sold for $49.50, which translates to about $500 today: Fewer than 5,000 sets were sold, and they were pulled from shelves in 1951.

Some facts to toy with:

  • When Play-Doh came out in the 1930s, it was meant to be used to clean wallpaper.

  • Lego is known for its toy building blocks, but it's also the world's biggest tire maker, producing more than 300 million of the tiny wheels each year.

  • At first, stores rejected Twister as being too risqué, but after Johnny Carson played it with Eva Gabor, it grew into a huge hit.

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