Lawn games have long been a staple of American culture. You can’t have a proper cookout without getting the cornhole set out and throwing some bags, horseshoe pitching has been played by American troops during most of the wars in this nation’s history, and croquet is commonly associated with American senior citizens spending a day outside at the retirement home.
All of these games are fun and peaceful ways to occupy our minds and bodies as we enjoy the outdoors and the company of our friends, family, and neighbors. So, when we think of lawn games, we usually don’t think of them as being life-threatening. However, lawn darts are one lawn game that was actually outlawed for causing several deaths.
If you’ve never heard of lawn darts, it’s probably because you were born after 1988 (the year when lawn darts pretty much disappeared from the U.S. consumer market entirely). But, if you lived through the Lawn Dart Era, you probably remember that this game was incredibly popular and, for a while, could be found in most American garages. The game involves throwing oversized darts with massive metal spikes on the ends of them high into the air and hoping that they land in a hoop placed several feet away. So, it’s not very hard to imagine how this not-so-innocent seeming game went horribly wrong.
In this article, we’re going to look at the dark history of lawn darts (or “Jarts” as they’re sometimes called): how they were invented, the height of their popularity, and the awful mistake that caused them to pretty disappear off the face of the Earth.
The Good Years
Lawn darts were invented sometime during the 1950s by a dentist named Lawrence Barnett. He invented the game in his barn in Fort Edward, New York, and he began manufacturing these toys in South Glens Falls and selling them under the brand name “Jarts” soon after. Obviously, this game was based on darts, which originated as a pastime for British soldiers sometime during the Middle Ages. Lawn darts were also extremely similar to horseshoe pitching, which is believed to have stemmed from a game played by Roman officers during the Roman occupation of Britain.
So, lawn darts are sort of a combination of horseshoe pitching and darts. The game can be played either one-on-one or with two teams of two. Essentially, the point is to throw the large, metal darts into a hoop lying on the ground about 35 feet away. It’s very similar to cornhole in that players from opposite teams stand next to each other and throw at the same hoop. If two players both land their darts in the same hoop during the same round, then the points cancel each other out.
As you can probably tell, lawn darts were a ton of fun. It’s no wonder that this game became extremely popular during the 1960s and 1970s. For a while, if you were going to invite your neighbors over for a barbecue, it was expected that you would have lawn darts set for your guests to enjoy.
As you probably expected, though, it didn’t take long for things to go sour. And, over the years, more and more accidents occurred, forcing several U.S. government bodies to take restrictive action.
A Turn for the Worst
The safety of lawn darts first became of legal concern in 1970 when the Food and Drug Administration refused to approve these toys for sale under the Toy Safety Act. This decision infuriated Robert Barnett (the owner of the R. B. Jarts company, the world’s largest manufacturer of lawn darts, and son of the game’s inventor). He claimed that other products were equally unsafe and yet were legally allowed to be sold under U.S. law.
In an interview, he once said, “Kids can hurt themselves with bicycles and archery and rifles, too. Why aren’t they included? I’d rather be hit by a lawn dart than by a horseshoe.” Well, just because something is preferable to being struck in the head with a heavy piece of metal doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be legal.
According to the FDA, if lawn darts were going to be sold, they had to have warning labels that advised parents to keep them away from children, they had to have instructions to play the game far from children or animals, and they couldn’t be sold in toy stores. Obviously, this hurt sales of lawn darts, but they were still on the market.
But, in 1970, Consumers Union and the Children’s Foundation petitioned the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to ban the product outright. And, after a court hearing, lawn darts were banned outright in the United States. Despite being banned, though, lawn darts were still sold in the United States under different names and by knock-off brands.
Unfortunately, the inability of our government to remove these dangerous products from the market entirely led to a tragic event in 1987 that forced the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to step in and take even more strict legal action.
The Michelle Snow Incident
Up until 1987, lawn darts were still available to the public through legal loopholes that allowed them to be sold in stores under different names. However, that changed after Michelle Snow, a seven-year-old girl, was killed by a lawn dart. She had been in the backyard of her Riverside, California, home when a friend of her brother’s threw a lawn dart up in the air and it came down on her head, puncturing her skull and causing fatal brain trauma.
The incident was big news and Michelle’s father David began to advocate for a stricter ban on lawn darts, claiming that there was no way to ensure that they’d be kept out of the reach of children. He had a pretty good point according to the statistics. In the previous eight years, 6,100 Americans had been hospitalized for lawn dart-related accidents. Of those 6,100 people, 81% were 15 years old or younger. So, partially as a result of David Snow’s campaign, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission decided to take a vote on whether or not to ban the product.
However, during the week that the commission was going to vote on the matter, an 11-year-old girl in Tennessee was struck with a lawn dart and fell into a coma. That pretty much sealed lawn darts’ fate. The product was banned outright in 1988 by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. And, unlike previous bans, this ban actually succeeded in removing most lawn darts sets from the U.S. market.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still some lawn darts enthusiasts out there. In fact, there are some that revel in the illegal game so much that they actually skirted the ban by selling lawn darts components separately online. That sounds like a lot of unnecessary work when you can just pick up a cornhole set at your local Walmart instead. All in all, lawn darts sound fun, but there are many other ways to have fun on a Saturday afternoon that don’t involve throwing lethal metal spikes up into the air.