|Harry Potter fans will appreciate the origin of the chemistry set: In 18th century England, university students were given supply lists and sent to shops in London that assembled kits for each course of study, from geology to mineralogy and chemistry.|
Eventually those shops started selling the kits more widely, as science captured the public imagination in the Victorian era, said Rosie Cook, a cultural historian at the Chemical Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group in Philadelphia. She is curating an exhibit of chemistry sets planned for 2014.
The early sets were very similar to pharmacy or doctor’s kits from the era, Ms. Cook said. They were “fully stocked with glassware and porcelain labware, beautiful wooden boxes.” (Picture Professor Snape’s potions lab.)
By World War I, she said, the Porter brothers, who ran the Porter Chemical Company in Hagerstown, Md., started importing kits from England. “You’ll find them in the five-and-dime, Woolworth’s,” Ms. Cook said.
Soon after, an inventor and entrepreneur named A. C. Gilbert — who popularized the Erector Set — introduced chemistry sets, going up against the Porters and their Chemcraft brand.
“By the 1940s, you probably have 15 manufacturers,” Ms. Cook said.
At the time, science and scientists were held in the highest esteem, and chemistry sets were perhaps the first toys marketed to American parents as a way to help their children succeed. “They’re claiming that these kits are going to be career-building sets,” Ms. Cook said. “It’s very ingenious. They really are playing on the subconscious of parents, who grew up in the Depression and want a steady career” for their children.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, chemistry sets entered the atomic age. Gilbert offered an “Atomic Energy Lab” that came with “radioactive ores” and a Geiger counter. A Porter Chemcraft kit had uranium samples and a spinthariscope, a device for viewing radioactive decay. (The humor site Cracked.com last year named toys like this in a list of “The 8 Most Wildly Irresponsible Vintage Toys.”)
“Was it dangerous? Probably,” Ms. Cook said. “This was all before the launch of the consumer protection agency. This is also the period where science doesn’t really know what is dangerous and what isn’t.”
By the 1960s, the environmental movement started to turn “chemicals” into a dirty word, and sales of chemistry sets plummeted accordingly. In the 1970s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission was set up and started clamping down on the contents of kits, leading the products to all but disappear for a decade or two.
By the 1990s, chemistry sets started to trickle back, usually under the guise of “kitchen chemistry,” Ms. Cook said. Today’s kits are mostly in that vein.
Her organization owns about 110 vintage chemistry sets, up from a dozen or so in 2003, when Ms. Cook joined. “We have the largest collection held in the public sphere,” she said. “This is what happens when you give me a budget and eBay.”