Chemistry at Play

The BGL Chemical Set

The BGL Chemical Set (CHF Collections)

Chests similar to those described by Woodhouse and Göttling, and books like Marcet’s, continued to be produced and marketed through the middle of the 19th century. But in the 1860s a new company entered the market, creating new marketing techniques and new audiences. At its height John J. Griffin and Sons manufactured and sold 11 different categories of chemical cabinets, ranging from simple ones for the merely curious or beginning students to specific cabinets required by colleges and universities throughout England. Specific sets were offered for students attending the Royal Naval College, the Royal Agricultural College, Oxford University, and Cambridge University, as well as sets specifically manufactured for elementary school headmasters. The diversity of the Griffin sets ensured their dominance. Until the late 1940s no other brand of chemical chest was as popular.

Production of chemistry sets declined leading into World War I, after Germany, then the largest producer of raw chemicals, stopped exporting. In England and France governments diverted the limited amount of domestic chemical production to war uses, leaving companies like Griffin without sufficient chemicals for their sets.

As tensions rose in Europe, a small company was born in 1914 in Hagerstown, Maryland. Porter Chemical Company’s goal was to make and sell “chemical preparations and other materials and articles.” Company founders, brothers John J. and Harold Mitchell Porter, chose to concentrate on chemistry sets for their ease of manufacture and because they provided one of the few intellectually stimulating toys for children. 

Mainly focusing on the mid-Atlantic cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., the first of Porter’s Chemcraft sets appeared in 1915 and quickly gained immense popularity. The sets soon found their way onto the shelves of chain stores like Woolworth and Strawbridge and Clothier. The first Chemcraft line only included two or three types of sets with one standard booklet. But as their popularity with children grew, so did the number of sets offered. In any given year during the 1950s, Porter offered between 10 and 15 different sets that ranged in size from 10 pieces to more than 100, and in price, starting at $1.

In 1920 a rival emerged. Alfred Carlton Gilbert, inventor of the hugely popular Erector Set, began selling simple microscope and Chemical Magic sets. These first kits included instructions on how to put on “magic” shows using the experiments and chemicals provided. Shrinking, melting, changing colors, and disappearing were all effects used to amuse. Warren Schlinger, a chemical engineer, recalls, “One day, [my friend] Keith got a Gilbert Chemistry Set. He invited me over . . . and we did every experiment in the book. I was fascinated.” George Rathmann, cofounder of biotech giant Amgen concurs: “You find out that you can take a metal . . . put it in water and . . . blow up the hydrogen that’s being generated, and then you find it can be sodium or it can be potassium or it can be lithium!”

Over the course of the next 30 years Porter and Gilbert competed in an expanding market. They vied for buyers and advertising space, usually in comic books, Popular Science, and other magazines aimed at children. The two companies even competed in the designs of the sets, each not wanting to be too similar to the other and each wanting to be more colorful and eye-catching. After World War II, Porter and Gilbert were joined by other brands, such as Skil-Craft, Handy-Andy, and Midget Lab, new companies intent on capitalizing on the increasing popularity of this toy.

The first sets were housed in either cardboard or painted wooden boxes. Subsequent sets had aluminum or tin cases painted in bright colors with images of boys playing with test tubes and other pieces of lab equipment. Later sets included images of rockets, satellites, and submarines, and so-called atomic sets depicted images of cooling towers and the universal symbol of the atom.