Chemistry at Play

The BGL Chemical Set

The BGL Chemical Set. Image courtesy of CHF Collections.

Set contents were fairly similar from company to company and included an instruction book, a test-tube rack, a simple balance, an alcohol lamp, and a variety of chemicals. “It upset my family to no end … the smells and the things that I used to make in the basement,” says former Gordon Research Conference director Carlyle Storm about his Gilbert chemistry set. Later additions included complex microscopes and even the occasional spinthariscope—a device used to see the “waves of radiation” emitted by the accompanying sample of depleted uranium dust.

The emergence of Porter and Gilbert with their unique marketing strategy opened the chemistry set to an entirely new market. Children had frequently been a favorite target of stores, which knew the influence they held over their parents’ purse strings. But Porter and Gilbert hit upon something new. They marketed the kits in two distinct ways: to children as toys, but to parents as an educational gateway to a possible career. The Chemcraft corporate slogan at this time, “Experimenter Today . . . Scientist Tomorrow,” perfectly embodies this idea. The impact was not lost on kids like Schlinger, Rathmann, and Storm, all of whom grew up to become noted chemists.

In the mid-1950s a second focus emerged—the idea of world leadership and global responsibility through science. The dawn of the nuclear age and the race for space presented big issues needing big solutions. As a result the public began to expect more of chemistry and other sciences. Program developers—usually academic and industrial chemists and physicists—for Gilbert, Porter, and the other companies decided that children needed grounding in more complicated topics like fusion and fission and even quantum mechanics. Abstract cover art and Chemcraft’s new slogan, “Porter Science Prepares Young America for World Leadership,” captured this shift.

Sets specifically marketed for girls did not emerge until the late 1950s. Called Lab Technician Sets, they contained little more than a plastic microscope and prepared slides. Pink boxes showed girls working with other girls. This gender barrier on set covers continued through the mid- to late 1960s, after which boys and girls were shown working together, usually “supervised” by a professional chemist in a white lab coat.

The emergence of the “supervisor” on the front of sets marked the beginning of another fundamental shift by companies to emphasize the safety of their products. By the mid-1960s increasing safety concerns resulted in many toys being deemed too dangerous for children. Parents no longer wanted their children playing with loose chemicals or bending glass with an alcohol lamp in the basement. Gilbert and Chemcraft even put labels on the front of their sets, assuring parents that they had passed safety tests and contained nontoxic, nonexplosive chemicals.

Beginning with the Federal Hazardous Substances Labeling Act of 1960, government regulation of chemicals fundamentally changed the makeup of chemistry sets and limited the experiments possible. Any material considered flammable, toxic, explosive, or caustic, or to be an irritant or a strong sensitizer required labeling. Gone were hydrochloric and sulfuric acids and alcohol lamps.

President Richard Nixon signed the Toy Safety Act in 1969, which created the first American safety standards for toys. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was now charged with testing and regulating (including banning) all toys sold in the United States.

In 1972 the newly created Consumer Product Safety Commission began setting safety standards,  forcing companies to answer questions about what chemistry sets contained and why. Was it appropriate to teach children how to bend glass or to make gases using acids? What were the chances of injury or of setting a house on fire? Previously, Gilbert and Porter answered only to their customers and advisers; now they answered to commissioners untrained in science. The Toxic Substances Control Act, passed in 1976, added further limits, banning some chemicals outright, while regulating the amounts in which others could be obtained. The act also required companies selling chemicals to keep a record of who purchased what and in what quantities.