Science at Play

A History of Chemistry Sets


The "BGL" Chemical SetScience History Institute

Chapter 1: Introduction

A boy in an improvised basement lab in the 1930s, mixing chemicals to see what happens . . .

Skil-Craft No. 430 Microscope Chem Lab Skil-Craft No. 430 Microscope Chem Lab (1960/1969) by Skil-Craft CorporationScience History Institute

A girl at a kitchen table in the 1960s, peering at plant cells through a microscope . . .

An adult scientist in a laboratory today, experimenting, asking questions, testing hypotheses . . .

All are playing with science, following their curiosity to investigate the endless variety of the natural world.

Kenner's Girder and Panel Hydro-Dynamic Building Set No. 11 Kenner's Girder and Panel Hydro-Dynamic Building Set No. 11Science History Institute

Toys are the technology of play, the tools children use for their explorations. Some playthings based on scientific principles, such as spinning tops, date back to antiquity.

Skil-Craft Biology Lab No. 802P Skil-Craft Biology Lab No. 802PScience History Institute

Other science toys, . . .

including portable experiment boxes and optical-illusion devices, . . .

evolved from apparatus used in lecture-demonstrations during the 1700s and 1800s.

Porter Chemcraft Chemistry Lab featuring Atomic Energy Porter Chemcraft Chemistry Lab featuring Atomic EnergyScience History Institute

Chemistry sets and other miniature laboratories made specifically for children appeared in the early 1900s and soon became mass-marketed consumer goods.

Discover the fascinating worlds of science play!

The "BGL" Chemical SetScience History Institute

Chapter 2: From Lab to Home

During the 1800s science play was not just for children. In Great Britain, Europe, and the United States adults could purchase scientific instruments, attend public lectures and demonstrations on electricity or physics, read newspaper articles and books about engineering or natural history, and even set up chemistry laboratories in their own homes. Young and old alike were interested in the latest theories, inventions, and discoveries. 

Science Kits at Play: 1850s by Science History InstituteScience History Institute

Learning about science could involve the whole family. Parents and children collaborated on “chemical recreations,” experiments that showed the importance of chemistry in everyday life. The authors of children's books about physics, chemistry, and natural history also taught morals and manners to their young readers. The first chemistry sets were portable teaching tools for high school and university students or wealthy amateurs. People interested in home experimentation who could not afford such expensive sets bought books describing relatively simple procedures.

Chemcraft Chemical Outfit No. 1 (1917)Science History Institute

Chapter 3: Magic and Mastery

Brothers Harold and John Porter believed that magic could entice
children to learn about science. In 1916, working in their basement in
Hagerstown, Maryland, the Porters assembled simple sets of chemicals that could
produce dramatic but relatively safe effects: invisible inks, liquids that changed color,
and more. 

The Porter Chemical Company’s boxes of “Chemical Magic” were the first modern chemistry sets for children.

Science Kits at Play: 1900s by Science History InstituteScience History Institute

Chemical magic was a special kind of chemistry, mysterious for the audience but crystal-clear for the performer. A child could dazzle onlookers with sleight of hand and stage patter without revealing the true nature of the tricks. By putting on chemical magic shows for an audience (real or imaginary), children could master not just stagecraft but “secret” scientific knowledge.

Mysto Magic Exhibition Set No. 2Science History Institute

Amateur magician and Yale graduate Alfred Carlton Gilbert began a magic-supply business in Connecticut in 1907. He branched out into construction toys, introducing the popular Erector Set in 1913. Noting the Porters’ success, he published a chemical magic book in 1920 and started making chemistry sets.

Porter Chemcraft Chemistry Outfit No. 0Science History Institute

The Porter Chemical Company’s earliest chemistry sets retailed for 75 cents to 1 dollar at department stores in 1916. These were high prices for toys at a time when the average weekly wage was 7 to 10 dollars.

Porter's Chemcraft soon became a mass-marketed brand. By 1939 Porter claimed to be the single largest global consumer of glass test tubes. Children all over the world wrote letters to “Chemcraft, U.S.A.”: the U.S. Postal Service made sure the mail reached its destination.

Chemcraft Chemical Outfit No. 5 Chemcraft Chemical Outfit No. 5Science History Institute

Porter Chemical made a wide range of science toys, but Chemcraft chemistry sets and Microcraft microscope sets were its best sellers. In 1955, during the company’s peak years, Porter manufactured 425,000 chemistry and microscope sets. The firm closed in 1984.

Gilbert Tele-Set Telegraph Outfit No. 3502Science History Institute

Like Porter, the A. C. Gilbert Company focused on scientific and educational toys.

Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab No. 12006Science History Institute

By the 1950s Gilbert had become one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers, employing more than 5,000 people in New Haven, Connecticut. The company struggled after its charismatic founder’s death in 1961 and closed three years later.

Chemcraft: An Introduction to the Wonders of Modern ChemistryScience History Institute

“Exotic” imagery enhanced the allure of chemical magic. Manuals often showed illustrations of robed alchemists or magicians from an imaginary East: mustachioed men in turbans waving wands or gazing into crystal balls.

Such ethnic and racial stereotypes contrasted with the career-focused imagery of standard chemistry-set manuals.

Bill Jensen (2017-12-04)Science History Institute

William B. Jensen, a renowned author, editor, and chemistry professor who led the University of Cincinnati’s Department of Chemistry for more than 25 years, discusses an early lesson on experiments gone awry.

Skil-Craft Microscope Lab Case Skil-Craft Microscope Lab Case (1963/1969) by Skil-Craft CorporationScience History Institute

Chapter 4: Fantastic Journeys

Chemistry sets were not the only science toys that began as scientific tools. Optical toys of the 1700s and 1800s grew out of experiments on the principles of vision. 

"Louis Pasteur" Microscope Set "Louis Pasteur" Microscope SetScience History Institute

Microscopes made for children during the 1900s were scaled-down, simplified versions of grown-up instruments.

Even moderate magnification showed striking details invisible to the naked eye, such as the hairs on a spider’s leg.

Harmonic Reed Corporation Spitz Junior Planetarium Harmonic Reed Corporation Spitz Junior PlanetariumScience History Institute

Toy telescopes brought the moon, planets, and stars down to earth. Stereo viewers created an illusion of immersion in a three-dimensional scene. Makers of visual toys emphasized adventure.

Harmonic Reed Corporation Spitz Junior Planetarium Harmonic Reed Corporation Spitz Junior PlanetariumScience History Institute

Children using these instruments could imagine voyaging inside a cell or crystal, to the other side of the globe, or even into space.

Skil-Craft No. 430 Microscope Chem Lab Skil-Craft No. 430 Microscope Chem LabScience History Institute

In the 1920s toy microscope sets rose in popularity and were often sold alongside chemistry sets. Manufacturers emphasized the sturdy construction and quality optics of the microscopes in their sets.

They also provided chemicals and tools . . .

so that children could prepare their own microscope slides for viewing.

Gilbert No. 1 Chemistry Outfit (1954) by A.C. Gilbert CompanyScience History Institute

Chapter 5: Exciting! Safe! 

IMPORTANT—Please Read Carefully!

Many people have the notion that chemistry sets are dangerous. This is no more correct than it is to say that “houses are dangerous” or “roller skates are dangerous.”

Here are a few do’s and don’ts to guide yourself:

DO take each step in an experiment carefully and without haste.

DO NOT use this set unless you can read and understand all experiments.

DO NOT smell the open end of a heating test tube or put your face near it.           —Manual for Gilbert Chemistry Outfit No. 1, 194

Science Kits at Play: 1950s by Science History InstituteScience History Institute

Until the 1950s few regulations on consumer goods existed in the United States. Numerous complaints about hazards and injuries from shoddy toys led to the Child Protection and Toy Safety Act of 1969, the first major law to ban “thermal, electrical, or mechanical” dangers to children, such as a toy oven that heated to 660 degrees and dolls filled with sharp spikes.

Gilbert No. 1 Chemistry Outfit (1954) by A.C. Gilbert CompanyScience History Institute

Even though lawmakers excluded chemistry sets from the 1969 law because of their educational purpose, later regulations affected the sets’ contents and labeling.

Manufacturers removed alcohol lamps and strong acids and added specific warnings to vials of chemicals.

Around the same time, playing with science became less about chemicals and microscopes and more about batteries, buttons, and beeps. Video games and electronic toys began to dominate the toy market during the 1970s, gradually displacing such classic educational playthings as electric trains and chemistry sets.

Midgetlab Chemical Outfit No. 10 Midgetlab Chemical Outfit No. 10Science History Institute

“Safe—Non-Explosive—Contains No Dangerous Poisons of any Kind” states the booklet for this small, early set.

It included ferric ammonium sulfate, sodium silicate solution, and sodium ferrocyanide.

These chemicals, relatively harmless by themselves when handled safely, today would have labels warning that they cause skin and eye irritation and are hazardous if ingested.

Chemcraft: An Introduction to the Wonders of Modern ChemistryScience History Institute

The booklet for this beginner’s set says “No Dangerous Poisons or Explosive Chemicals”—a statement meant to reassure parents as their children started to explore “the wonders of modern chemistry.”

Handy Andy Junior Chemistry LabScience History Institute

The lid on this set emphasizes its fun, safety, and educational messages . . .

with a string of exclamation points . . .

and a seal of commendation from Parents’ Magazine. Skil-Craft, a Chicago toy company, used its Handy Andy mascot primarily for selling carpentry tool sets.

Michelle Francl (2017-12-04)Science History Institute

Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry at Bryn Mawr College and an accomplished writer, shares her earliest memories of fun and danger with chemistry.

Kosmos Lehrspielzeug [Teaching Toy] 2 All-ChemistScience History Institute

Chapter 6: For Boys—and Girls?

For most of the 1900s makers of science toys aimed their products primarily at boys. Packaging and marketing nearly always pictured just boys, even though text in advertisements and manuals often said “for boys and girls.” 

The "BGL" Chemical SetScience History Institute

This focus on boys reflected cultural expectations about gender roles. Parents and teachers steered boys toward jobs and careers and prepared girls to be wives and mothers. Manufacturers stressed that their products would foster manliness and maturity in boys. Girls, by contrast, could learn skills that would be useful in the domestic realm.

The Practical ChemistScience History Institute

Some sets focused on household or kitchen chemistry, which could presumably appeal to both genders.

With this set children could make “useful household and beauty items,” such as silver polish and cold cream.

Gilbert Lab Technician Set for Girls Gilbert Lab Technician Set for Girls (1958)Science History Institute

Girls appeared more frequently on sets and in advertisements beginning in the 1960s as more women fought to enter male-dominated professions.

Gilbert Lab Technician Set for Girls Gilbert Lab Technician Set for GirlsScience History Institute

For decades, however, many women with science training were shunted into subordinate roles in laboratories and other workplaces, “serving as another pair of hands,” as research chemist and technical editor Ethaline Cortelyou wrote in the Chemical Bulletin in 1958.

Girls actively participated in science clubs and competitions. In 1958 Julie Gunderson became the first girl to win Porter Chemical’s College Scholarship Contest. Porter’s catalogue for dealers described the upcoming 1959 contest as a “sensationally successful merchandising idea.”

Mary Virginia Orna (2017-12-04)Science History Institute

Mary Virginia Orna, a faculty member at the College of New Rochelle and an internationally acclaimed educator in chemistry, shares a story about a Christmas gift that changed her path to learning.

Chemcraft: An Introduction to the Wonders of Modern ChemistryScience History Institute

Chapter 7: Experimenter
Today—Scientist Tomorrow

The manufacturers of science toys assured children and parents that their products would lead to fulfilling careers in a modern world. In this ideal scenario boys and girls would learn not just chemistry and biology. They would also acquire mental discipline and orderly habits as they learned to follow instructions and handle chemicals, tools, and instruments properly.

Skil-Craft Biology Lab No. 802P Skil-Craft Biology Lab No. 802PScience History Institute

The United States and other industrial nations needed well-trained workers to fuel postwar progress in laboratories, chemical factories, nuclear-power plants, oil refineries, and more.

Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab No. 12006Science History Institute

A. C. Gilbert, Porter Chemical, and their competitors here and abroad answered the call to help shape the future—and make profits along the way.

Skil-Craft No. 506 Senior Chemistry Lab Case Skil-Craft No. 506 Senior Chemistry Lab CaseScience History Institute

The companies’ powerful slogans and imagery helped sell millions of chemistry sets, microscope sets, and other science toys to parents and relatives who wanted the best for their children.

Porter Chemcraft Chemistry Lab featuring Atomic Energy Porter Chemcraft Chemistry Lab featuring Atomic EnergyScience History Institute

The design of chemistry sets reinforced their career-building messages. Boxes and cases, with their tidy arrays of vials and tubes, mimicked lab benches. Pictures on the sets and booklets showed laboratories or industrial workplaces.

Some sets featured boys (and occasionally girls) holding up test tubes or peering into microscopes, . . .

along with shadowy images of the adult scientists they could become.

Andrew MangraviteScience History Institute

Andrew Mangravite, a former archivist and researcher at the Science History Institute, recalls a childhood experiment that was much more “yuck” than “yay."

Gilbert Electric Eye Kit (1949)Science History Institute

Chapter 8: Selling Science

The manufacturers of science toys needed to be inventive to feed consumer demand for educational items and keep ahead of their competitors. 

Johnny Horizon Environmental Test KitScience History Institute

Here and abroad companies boxed up such hot topics as electricity, atomic energy, and environmentalism. They added features and updated designs so their products would look fresh and new.

Science Kits at Play: 2000s by Science History InsituteScience History Institute

The market for playthings that entertain as they teach remains strong today. Parents and children have a wide range of choices, from comical goo and slime kits to serious, high-end chemistry sets. In addition, the maker movement of independent inventors, designers, and craftspeople has helped spark a new appreciation for hands-on, do-it-yourself creativity and learning. And dozens of popular books encourage boys and girls to be daring, imaginative—and even a little bit dangerous—as they explore the world around them. Science play will undoubtedly continue to evolve.

Credits: Story

Curated by Jane E. Boyd, guest curator, and the staff of the Science History Institute.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.