Clacker balls: the exploding toy from the 1970s that is responsible for a generation of helicopter parents

It’s ok. Just hold my hand.
It’s ok. Just hold my hand.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Knoblock
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In the late 1960s people were playing like crazy with two small heavy balls on a string. Clackers, once set in motion made an ear-splitting sound, were super-fun, highly addictive, and sometimes would explode.

So of course they were banned.

By the early 70s, hundreds of toymakers had sold millions of clackers around the world. Clackers were similar in design to boleadoras, the weapon-of-choice for gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) who were trying to capture guanacos (an animal that looks like a llama). The toys could be made out of wood or metal. The ones made of hard acrylic plastic, however, could shatter on impact and become shrapnel.

In the US, regulating the safety of toys was originally the job of the Food and Drug Administration. Clearly, clackers were neither a food nor a drug. But the FDA had authority to protect people from playing with the wrong silly things through a 1966 act that compelled them to ban toys containing ”chemical, flammability, or radioactivity hazards.” Three years later, those powers broadened under the “Child Protection and Toy Safety Act” which forbid the sale of toys deemed to be hazardous.

Swinging spheres, the law of Newton’s cradle
Swinging spheres, the law of Newton’s cradle
Image: The Banned Toy Museum

So along came clacker balls, also known as click-clacks, bolas or knockers. By the early 1970s, clackers were so popular that they had reached the residents of a small province in northern Italy called Calcinatello, (population 12,832) which held an annual competition for clacker fans, according to John P. Swann, an FDA historian.

Still. Exploding.

And not in a good way. While the toys had been originally marketed as a way to teach kids hand-eye coordination, the fact that they could turn into a projectile was enough for the Society for the Prevention of Blindness to issue a warning.

In response, in 1971 the FDA put its collective head together and set out new safety standards for manufacturers which included prescriptive testing and stringent record-keeping. That was a massive drag for clacker makers and then, guess what, the toy got pulled off of the market.

A few years later, in 1973, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was born and paranoia about unsafe toys became a pervasive feature in the childhoods of American Baby Boomers, ultimately sowing the seeds for the helicopter parenting style of today.

In fact, the US was so nervous about playing with the wrong things during that era that Dan Ackroyd created a Saturday Night Live character (video) called Irwin Mainway to show how silly it had all become. Mainway was a sleazy toy company executive forced to defend his line of products which included Bag of Glass, “because the average kid picks up glass everywhere anyway, so why not package it and give them what they want?”

Clacker balls in some form are still around if you’d like to buy them. If you’re worried about the potential that they’ll turn into a projectile, don’t. Science has evolved since the 1960s and we’ve since been gifted with non-shattering polymers. So go ahead, you’re safe to play.