This Month in Science: What’s in Your Childhood Chemistry Set?

This artifact is a Microscope Set manufactured by the A. C. Gilbert Company around 1938. This particular set belonged to Dr. Richard J. Corbett. The kit was a Christmas gift from Dr. Corbett’s parents when he was a young boy. It contains a microscope with different objective lenses for magnifying and viewing specimens, glass slides, microscope tools, test tubes, chemicals, and other components of an early 20th century chemistry kit. This artifact is an example of the myriad scientific kits that inspired children to become scientists and doctors.

The set’s manual reads like a textbook, but it’s not hard to see how performing the experiments in conjunction with reading the text would be thrilling for a kid. The hundreds of sample experiments not only explain how to perform the experiment, but also the science behind what you’re doing1. Experiments included how to use a microscope, the proper way to prepare samples, identifying the differences between animal and human hair, growing and examining crystals, testing fruits and vegetables for iron content, and examining cells of plants and animals, among many others2. The kit also includes the necessary chemicals to stain samples and do the experiments. One experiment even explains how to examine blood and teaches how to sterilize a needle in order to obtain a drop of blood from your finger3.

Chemistry sets produced between the 1930s and 1950s were full of various chemicals—generally of the hazardous variety—that invited children (primarily marketed to young boys) to investigate explosives, nuclear energy, rocketry, and more4. It is common to hear scientists, doctors, and engineers say their careers were inspired by these childhood kits5. With manuals chock full of information and a laboratory starter kit (complete with chemicals, test tubes, and Bunsen burners), a young child could dive deep into the science of experimentation.

Toy chemistry kits were modeled after the more sophisticated portable “laboratories” marketed to serious chemists. Professional kits were often packaged in wooden boxes and contained glassware, chemicals, scales, and other equipment necessary to perform tests in chemistry and medicine5. As these kits gained popularity with students and other scientific professionals, they became more affordable, and a market for children’s sets developed. Late 1800s sets focused on magic and performing illusions, but by the 1950s, the focus shifted to preparing “young America for world leadership”6. Kits targeted to young girls eventually came out in the late 1950s. While the Gilbert set for girls contained the same manual as the boy’s set (but with a pink cover), Chemcraft developed the Sachetcraft kit that let girls make perfumes and cosmetics7. Gilbert’s “Lab Technician Set for Girls” also made it clear that girls were only capable of supporting scientific discovery, instead of making discoveries themselves8.

With chemicals like potassium nitrate (used in gunpowder), sodium ferrocyanide (poison), and calcium hypochlorite (used to make chlorine gas), a kid could get into a bit of trouble but could also perform serious experiments. The occasional basement explosion was a small price to pay for inspiring a generation. The golden age of the chemistry set began to decline as safety regulations increased. A handful of high-profile lawsuits also contributed to a decrease in popularity.

Children’s chemistry sets today are a lot safer, but also less exciting. These kits often don’t contain any chemicals at all9. Many adults lament the fact that these kits fail to inspire awe the way these earlier toys did. Today’s kids can grow crystals and make a volcano erupt, but they won’t be playing with Geiger counters and radioactive material like they would have if they had the 1950 Atomic Energy Set10.

Dr. Richard Corbett was born in Lake Waccamaw, NC and grew up in Wilmington. He graduated from Bowman Gray Medical School in 1957 and went on to practice medicine for 30 years with the New Hanover Medical Group11. In addition to this microscope kit, Dr. Corbett donated many medical instruments and his Navy uniform to Cape Fear Museum.




Previous Columns

June 2019: What Happened to the Dinosaurs?
May 2019: Hurricane Season
April 2019: Quantum Levitation
March 2019: Venus Flytrap
February 2019: A Shifting Magnetic Field
January 2019: Giant Ground Sloth
December: Snowflakes
November: Citizen Science
October: Parker Solar Probe Voyaging to the Sun
August: Sea Turtle Season
July: Plastic Free July
June 2018: All About Alligators

Gilbert Microscope Set, about 1938.
Donated by Dr. Richard J. Corbett.

Chemcraft was another line of chemistry sets aimed at boys from The Porter Chemical Company.

Sets marketed to girls were pink and clearly set them up for careers as lab techs, not principal investigators.
Source: Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections. Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

The Atomic Energy Lab from the Gilbert Company contained radioactive material to study nuclear physics.
CC BY-SA 3.0.
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