The chemistry set is an icon in the toy world. It's ignited entire generations of aspiring scientists, and more than a few experiments gone awry, but it wasn't an instant classic. In its 100 years on the scene, the toy chemistry set has seen its share of ups and downs on the long journey into the hearts and gift boxes of consumers.
The toy actually has purely practical roots. In the 1800s, portable kits containing chemicals, glassware, and various tools were sold for use in the academic world. Stores steadily cranked out the kits for students and professors until the distribution was largely halted by the outbreak of World War I (the kits were mostly assembled in England with chemicals supplied by Germany).
Meanwhile, two American brothers found inspiration in the chemistry kits and the rising popularity of a brand new toy, the Erector Set, which made its debut in 1913. John J. and Harold Mitchell Porter, owners of The Porter Chemical Company in Maryland, took a cue from the DIY spirit of the Erector Set and began manufacturing Chemcraft sets, similar to the English chemistry kits (they contained chemicals, a gas lamp, labware, and instructions), but marketed as a toy. Soon after the Porter Chemcraft set hit store shelves, the company found its first competitor. Alfred Carlton Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set, caught wind of the brothers’ idea and, in 1920, decided to debut a chemistry set of his own.
By the '30s, chemistry sets were being sold at major retailers like Woolworths, with advertisements emblazoned with “How to be a Boy Chemist!” and “Master the Mysteries of Modern Chemistry!” encouraging kids—mostly boys—to explore the exciting world of science. Parents were on board, too. These chemistry sets were one of the first widely distributed toys whose advertisements appealed to fresh-from-the-Depression parents, playing on the belief that a chemistry set was not merely a toy, but a valuable first step toward a career in science.
Rosie Cook of the Chemical Heritage Foundation told Smithsonian magazine: “Coming out of the Depression, that was a message that would resonate with a lot of parents who wanted their children to not only have a job that would make them money but to have a career that was stable. And if they could make the world a better place along the way, then even better."
Chemistry sets remained popular throughout the following decades, as new editions were released often to adapt to the changing attitudes toward different scientific disciplines. With the dawn of television came an entertainment-focused set that included a guide to putting on a magic show with chemistry. After World War II and the Manhattan Project, many new chemistry sets had a nuclear tilt. With the Space Race and moon landing around the corner, scientists were becoming a kind of superstar. The field of science was experiencing an unprecedented bump in coolness, and chemistry sets—finally giving kids access to science, actual science—became all the rage.
But the sets weren’t necessarily aimed at making science accessible for everyone—they were largely marketed toward white males. From advertisements to their packaging, the target market was clear.
Kristin Frederick-Frost, curator and collections manager at the Chemical Heritage Museum told WIRED, "The typical historical narrative goes that after the war and after Sputnik there’s this huge push to get more scientists in the field. If it was purely about mobilizing as many scientists as possible, the sets would have been made to be attractive to far more flavors of people than just white boys."
A rare set marketed toward girls from the 1950s. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
It wasn't just a narrow focus when it came to the intended user, the intended field was also zeroed in on defense and industrial use. Still, the kits did influence the lives of many. Robert F. Curl, Jr., recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, wrote in his Nobel autobiography: “When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist and never wavered from that choice.”
That golden era gave way to the '70s and '80s, when the public developed a growing mistrust of chemistry and its industries. In the years of Agent Orange, Three Mile Island, and Silent Spring, the American public’s shiny, futuristic perception of science was replaced with suspicion and a fear that chemistry could not only win wars for America, but wage war on its own citizens. Science was no longer exciting and cool, but scary, and chemistry sets declined in popularity. Chemistry sets now came with an emphasis on safety and many changes were inarguably for the better, as the kits of old were fraught with potential dangers. For example, glassblowing kits supplied children with a blowtorch, and some nuclear-focused kits of the '50s contained radioactive uranium ore. A string of consumer protection laws in the 1970s did away with acid in chemistry sets, among several other limitations in the sets’ contents. Chemistry sets never quite reclaimed their mojo—for the most part, today’s sets are tamer, containing smaller amounts of chemicals, and, in some cases, none at all.
Some people are still championing the chemistry set’s cause, however. A recent Kickstarter campaign aimed at assembling and distributing old-school chemistry sets racked up more than 500 backers and nearly $150,000. The set is designed to match the one sold by the A.C. Gilbert company from the '20s through the '40s, chemicals and all. Taking a more futuristic approach, the Chemical Heritage Foundation released a free app called ChemCrafter, which enables iPad users to “create surprising color changes, encounter fire and smoke, release various gases, and shatter equipment,” all from the safety of the screen. It might not compare to the real thing, but these efforts might just be priming the old-school chemistry set for a comeback.