Clacker Balls and the Early Days of Federal Toy Safety

By: John P. Swann, Ph. D.

As many of us scramble to find the perfect toy for the children in our lives this holiday season, it’s interesting to note that at one time FDA could very well have been known as the Food Drug and Toy Administration.

John SwannThe 1966 Child Protection Act gave FDA authority to ban toys that had chemical, flammability, or radioactivity hazards and the 1969 Child Protection and Toy Safety Act further defined FDA’s responsibility for ensuring the safety of toys, which the agency pursued until the formation of the Consumer Product Safety Commission in 1973.

During FDA’s brief stint as toy regulator, the agency dealt with flammable dolls; infant and toddler playthings that posed serious puncture, laceration, and crushing risks; and the infamous lawn darts. To appreciate FDA’s role at the time, consider what happened with clacker balls. Their origin was unclear, but clacker balls were a veritable craze by January 1971, to the consternation of parents and school districts everywhere. Sold under a variety of other names such as Kerbonkers, Click-Clacks, and Bo-Los, they could vary somewhat in design but typically, they were plastic, wooden, or steel balls of about two-inches in diameter. The balls were attached at each end of a two-foot cord that had a ring or knot in the middle. By holding the cord in the middle and moving your hand up and down, you could cause the balls to strike each other at the top and bottom of an arc with great force and abundant noise. By the spring of 1971, over 100 manufacturers had sold millions of clacker balls, according to FDA’s Bureau of Product Safety, which oversaw such commodities. And it was not a uniquely American phenomenon. The village of Calcinatello in Italy held an international competition of clacker ball enthusiasts in August 1971. In lieu of a trophy the winner received a variety of local delicacies.

picture of clacker balls

Assorted clacker ball sets, including some that ruptured.

Many compared the sudden popularity of clacker balls with the Hula Hoop, but they posed considerably greater risk to the user, as FDA soon discovered. Though advertised to “teach skill and coordination” and to consist of “non-breakable plastic with strong cord,” some of those enthusiasts sustained serious eye and other injuries due to the design and action of the toy, prompting the Society for the Prevention of Blindness to raise an alarm.  The balls could rupture and spew fragments, or become wayward missiles through detachment from or fraying of the cord itself.

The 1969 Toy Safety Act had provided for the banning of toys that represented an electrical, mechanical, or thermal hazard, pending the agency’s publication of the hazardous nature of the item and, if applicable, means of eliminating the hazard. And the agency took that seriously, banning more than 300 individual toys in seven classes through 1971.

After learning  of several injuries to children and adults from clacker balls, FDA issued a public warning in February 1971 as it investigated these reports and studied the toy and its potential to hurt the user—or bystanders.

FDA Toy Review Committee

The recommendations of the Toy Safety Review Committee in the Bureau of Product Safety (pictured here), which included a pediatrician and two engineers, played a key role in FDA’s decisions to ban, further test, mandate product redesign, or create regulations to address the hazards.

With ongoing reports of clacker ball injuries, just two months later, in April, FDA published its intention to ban such toys unless they could meet detailed standards of safety that addressed the integrity of the balls, cords, and connections that held them together.  FDA’s notice stated that the manufacturer would have to carry out the prescribed tests on a proportional number of samples based on the size of the batch produced, maintain records of these results, and make them available to the agency upon request. FDA finalized this plan in November 1971, and all clacker balls marketed thereafter had to either abide by the new safety standards or be subject to the ban.

The rulemaking process rendered clacker balls a safer toy, and those that failed to follow the standards were seized. Over 300,000 sets were put into storage at the Port of Miami while the agency was developing its safety standards for the clacker balls (presumably because the manufacturer knew they wouldn’t pass the safety tests). After a manufacturer tried, unsuccessfully, to find a market for these in South America, a salvage dealer apparently purchased the lot late in 1972, but their subsequent history is unknown.

Ensuring safety was FDA’s goal – and later that of the CSPC. But the toy’s noise was quite another thing. The standards applied by the two agencies never addressed the click-clack-click-clack that tormented parents and others for all these years.

Enjoy the click-clack sound of clacker balls!

John P. Swann, Ph.D., is an FDA Historian

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