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  • Writer's pictureHelaina Ferraioli

Chemistry Labs: The Rise & Fall

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

While I will be the first to admit that chemistry was my least favorite subject in school, I think it's safe to say that for most of us at Yesterday's News, science class was not our strong suit. Perhaps that's why we're all in the antique business...

A chemistry-inclined child, and his chemistry kit
A chemistry-inclined child, and his chemistry kit

All kidding aside, despite our lack of enthusiasm for chemistry in the classroom, something about the gamification of science through a step-by-step, family friendly kit makes it so much more appealing! Plus the uranium dust.

Perhaps this accounts for the success of chemistry sets through out the early to mid-20th century. As the Industrial Revolution sparked a need for scientifically inclined workers, the chemistry set became a “toy”. While they remained fairly popular throughout the 1900s, their decline was never marked by a resurgence. Even when Easy-Bake and other concoction-making products continued to make headway in the toy industry, the popularity of the chemistry set has never since returned to what it had been.

Natural Magic

Magia Naturalis Illustration, 1699
Magia Naturalis Illustration, 1644

Referred to in his home-town of Naples, Italy as “the professor of secrets”, Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta spent most of his life on scientific endeavors during the Scientific Revolution and Reformation periods in Europe. His most famous work, Magiae Naturalis (Natural Magic) covered a wide variety of topics, ranging from astrology, alchemy, meteorology, medicines, metallurgy and natural philosophy.

Included in the twenty-book work were some chemical magic tricks and scientific puzzles along with more serious topics. While it is unknown how widely practiced della Porta’s magical chemistry lessons were followed by those who read his works, the instructional nature of the books themselves lend us an understanding of how the Scientific Revolution (the emergence of modern science in the 16th century) sparked a hunger for experimentation in the realm of chemistry.

Early chemistry sets

The earliest chemistry sets as we know them today were not developed for recreation, but rather for practical scientific usage. Two 18th-century German chemists made significant contributions – one, a book, another, the physical set.

Victorian Portable Chemistry Set
Victorian Portable Chemistry Set

Johann Friedrich August Göttling, had his Description of a portable chest of chemistry translated into English for the use of chemists physicians, mineralogists, metallurgists, scientific artists, manufacturers, farmers, and cultivators of natural philosophy. Around the same time, Friedrich Accum also sold portable chemistry sets and materials to refill them, primarily as a means of training druggists and medical students. It wouldn’t be until the

1830s that marketers would catch onto the

real attraction (chemistry pun) that youngin’s

would have towards the atomic arts.

The first kits for kiddos

According to Salim Al-Galiani in his Magic, science, and masculinity: marketing toy chemistry sets (2009), the first chemistry sets targeted at children appeared in the 1830s. In order for chemical manufacturers to make chemicals more appealing to children, Al-Galiani says, they began to draw on the old rhetoric of chemistry as magic – and it worked.

Cover of 'Chemical Magic' Booklet, 1920
Cover of 'Chemical Magic' Booklet, 1920

Enchanting children with chemistry became a hot marketing plot. As children were desperate to make their own fireworks and perform color-changing tricks with and for their friends, businesses were looking to squeeze every last dollar they could out of the craze. Towards the end of the 1800s, a flux of handbooks, manuals and penny pamphlets appeared that taught kids how to perform ‘chemical magic’.

While the accompanying photo does not show a Victorian-era example of a pamphlet (there are none readily available on the web), it carries the same sentiment: lure kids into chemistry under the guise of magic.

Experimenter today, scientist tomorrow

With the first world war virtually decimating Europe’s focus on recreational science, two American companies, the Porter Chemical Company and the A.C. Gilbert Company, came to dominate the chemistry set market from 1920 to 1960. Their first big break came post-Depression, where the prospect of getting a job in the field of science was attractive to parents and kids alike, as it was a stable, well-paying profession with clear future value.

The Porter Chemcraft Science Club Certificate
The Porter Chemcraft Science Club Certificate

With the public interest on their side, both companies employed sophisticated marketing techniques to become household names and well-known pieces of American “boyhood”.

Porter Chemcraft clubs popped up, providing set owners with fancy certificates and monthly newsletter. In 1937, Gilbert launched a $100 prize contest for ‘boy chemist of the year’ (whatever that means?). Overall, the sets were made to feel fun to kids but appear functional to parents, a genius pitch that kept Gilbert and Porter in business for over three successful decades.

Gilbert Lab technician Set for Girls, 1958
Gilbert Lab technician Set for Girls, 1958

While almost all of the early chemistry sets were marketed exclusively to boys, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw inclusion of “female” oriented marketing - with a catch of course. Packaged in pink, the girl version of chemistry kits made by Porter and Gilbert contained contents which nudged girls towards the role of lab technician or assistant, as opposed to an actual chemist. Although these kits were released simultaneous to the first-wave feminist movement in the United States, they pretty much missed the mark entirely as to what the movement was really about. Points for trying though.

The swift decline

By the 1960s, an increasing distrust in chemistry and science as a whole, along with government regulation and safety concerns, chemistry sets fell quickly out of favor. As parents favored safety, and popular culture’s main concern transitioned towards environmental and anti-nuclear movements, the idea of promoting chemicals as a viable hobby or career for children was not as appealing as it had been to Depression-era and post WWII families.

Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, 1950, contained radioactive ores
Atomic Energy Lab, 1950, contained radioactive ores

Besides shifting public conscience, the US government implemented several laws that diminished the freedom of toy companies to give children access to potentially dangerous materials. The Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act (1960) ensured dangerous materials were indicated vibrantly on product packaging. The Toy Safety Act (1969) was actually the first ever national safety standard for toys, banning any toys deemed hazardous. The Toxic Substances Control Act (1976) provides the EPA with authority to require reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures. With so many regulations in place, chemistry sets failed to pass any of the new requirements easily. The A.C Gilbert Company went out of business in 1967, and the Porter Chemical Company went under in 1984.

With that said, for a limited time only (because we literally only have one of them), Yesterday's News is bringing the Gilbert Chemistry Experiment Lab set back.

Made for "magic tricks, secret writing, invisible inks, testing foods, and making blueprints", this 1956 artifact contains all of its original bottles, tools, and manuals (although not all of the chemicals included are useable). Check it out on our most recent Instagram post, and see some flicks of the set down below!



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