The rise and fall of lawn darts


This post is part of Mashable’s You’re Old Week. Break through the haze of nostalgia with us and see what holds up, what disappoints, and what got better with time.

There are a lot of dangerous children’s toys from previous decades, from Sky Dancers to Moon Shoes, but one particularly perilous game stands apart from the rest: lawn darts. 

If you’re unfamiliar with lawn darts, or Jarts as they’re sometimes known, it was a game developed in the mid-20th century, in which weighted spikes were tossed into the air with the hopes of landing  in a plastic circle placed some paces away. It was essentially the same game as horseshoes or cornhole, only with metal spikes raining down from the sky instead of bean bags. 

If you’ve never played the game, there’s a good reason. Lawn darts were banned in America by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1988 for the severe danger that they presented. This ban had to be reissued in 1997 and people were urged to destroy the game.

Lawn darts weren’t the brainchild of the 1950s. In fact, they have a much older history that definitely foreshadowed their violent implications.

The roots of lawn darts don’t come from the popular bar game they’re named after, instead their history can be found in an ancient Greet and Roman war weapon called a plumbata. Thought to have originated around 500 BCE, plumbata were basically the same thing as lawn darts: weighted spikes thrown from a distance with the intention of landing somewhere soft. They were even thrown in the same way. Needless to say, the ancient Romans weren’t aiming for a plastic circle.

Despite being a literal weapon of war, toy manufacturers believed that they would make an excellent family lawn game and began production of them in the 1950s.

It didn’t take long before the dark side of lawn darts reared its ugly, pierced head.

Lawn dart injuries happened – often – over the next few decades. The danger became so apparent that the Consumer Product Safety Commission first banned them in 1970. The manufacturers challenged the ban and a compromise was reached wherein lawn darts could no longer be marketed or sold as toys or in toy stores. 

The Commission ruled that every pack must contain the following warning: “Not a toy for use by children. May cause serious of [sic] fatal injury. Read instructions carefully. Keep out of reach of children.”

Unfortunately, this did little to stem the tide of injuries, and the more information that came out, the worse the picture appeared. 

The father of a 7-year-old girl who died in a lawn dart accident, David Snow, made it his mission to get the game banned. He launched a lobbying campaign, appealing to the Consumer Product Safety Commission to re-evaluate the injuries and deaths caused by lawn darts. The Commission, it turned out had misidentified how many injuries lawn darts had caused and had to update its statistics. According to Mental Floss, the commission believed there had only been a few dozen injuries. The reality was much worse.

“From January, 1978 to December 1986 lawn darts were responsible for an estimated 6,100 hospital emergency-room treated injuries,” the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported.  “Approximately 81 percent of the victims were under 15 years old, and 50 percent were under the age of 10.”

Lawn darts had also killed two other children: a 4-year-old, and a 13-year-old.

In 1988, the Commission voted to ban lawn darts sales completely. 

But that’s not the end of the story. Though they appear to be sold out now, at least one company skirted the ban by selling lawn dart components online. Subcultures also exist who revel in their forbidden lawn game. And then you have people like my parents, who probably never saw or heard of the ban at all, and allowed me and my sister to play with our set until well into the 1990s.

If there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this, it should be that toys and relaxing lawn games shouldn’t be made out of actual weapons of war.

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