December 4, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Clackers – moral panic over 1970s toy

3 min read

Two plastic balls linked by a skinny rope caused the most ridiculous moral panic at at the start of the 1970s. Clackers was a toy that, it was claimed, could leave you blinded or seriously injured. Very rapidly it went from being the must-have item in the school playground to a shunned and dangerous creation.

In December 1970, American amusement park operator Mike Brown began manufacturing Clackers and by March 1971 had sold a million. In just three months he had a staff of 60 people on two shifts at one factory churning them out and contracted production to two other facilities to meet soaring demand.

But already, school officials and teachers, as well as the product safety division of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were raising concerns that Clackers posed a big risk to kids. Despite that, the craze jumped the Atlantic and very soon, the United Kingdom had gone Clackers mad. Hula-Hoops and Yo-Yo’s were a yawn. Clackers were what every child wanted for their birthday.

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Liverpool swing behind the 1970s Clackers toy craze!

James Gardner, a factory owner in Liverpool, went to the United States and saw for himself how popular Clackers were. Two balls on a string cracked together that made an infernal racket, hated by adults but loved by children. Until…they ended up in hospital with cracked wrists and bruising. Very soon, tales of woe began to emerge.

The manufacturers responded by trying to make the balls more lightweight. Journalists reported that parents were at their wits end with, as one newspaper put it, “a cacophony that can only be described as high-pitched distant gunfire or giant clattering dentures”. Beach holidays were being ruined by the incessant clack-clack being heard everywhere.

The British Toy Council warned that Clackers made from inferior materials were causing real harm. Current affairs TV programmes carried films showing Clackers being subjected to stress tests and shattering into sharp pieces that could blind a child. Head teachers sent parents stern letters urging them to remove the toy from their children. Health authorities launched inquiries into the impact of Clackers and the number of youngsters being admitted for emergency treatment.

Decline and Fall of Clackers

By January 1972, as with so many crazes, the 18-month cycle of interest was over. Peaking in the middle of 1971 and then collapsing dramatically. Mr Gardner in Liverpool was left with half a million Clackers that couldn’t find a home. His company, James of England, was forced to make 170 people redundant leaving a skeleton staff of four. Most of these workers were women whose husbands were already out of work as industry in the region declined. Clackers had been a lifeline.

But, as one doctor put it, Clackers were crackers. This 1970s toy barely scraped its way into 1972. The furore that surrounded it was such that, even though I was nine years old in that year, I still recall the fuss around two plastic balls and a string. Do any of you remember Clackers?

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