Monday, December 08, 2014

Chemistry for the kids - a view from the vaults

At some point this is all going to become a more coherently thought-out piece, but right now I just want to show you some of the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s fabulous collection of chemistry kits through the ages. It is going to form the basis of an exhibition at some point in the future, so consider this a preview.

There is an entire social history to be told through these boxes of chemistry for kids.

Here's one of the earliest examples, in which the chemicals come in rather fetching little wooden bottles. That’s the spirit, old chap!

I like the warning on this one: if you’re too little or too dumb to read the instructions, keep your hands off.

Sartorial tips here for the young chemist, sadly unheeded today. Tuck those ties in, mind – you don’t want them dipping in the acid. Lots of the US kits, like this one, were made by A. C. Gilbert Co. of New Haven, Connecticut, which became one of the biggest toy manufacturers in the world. The intriguing thing is that the company began in 1909 as a supplier of materials for magic shows – Alfred Gilbert was a magician. So even at this time, the link between stage magic and chemical demonstrations, which had been established in the nineteenth century, was still evident.

Girls, as you know, cannot grow up to be scientists. But if they apply themselves, they might be able to adapt their natural domestic skills to become lab technicians. Of course, they’ll only want this set if it is in pink.

But if that makes you cringe, it got far worse. Some chemistry sets were still marketed as magic shows even in the 1940s and 50s. Of course, this required that you dress up as some exotic Eastern fellow, like a “Hindu prince or Rajah”. And he needs an assistant, who should be “made up as an Ethiopian slave”. “His face and arms should be blackened with burned cork… By all means assign him a fantastic name such as Allah, Kola, Rota or any foreign-sounding word.” Remember now, these kits were probably being given to the fine young boys who would have been formulating US foreign policy in the 1970s and 80s (or, God help us, even now).

OK, so boys and girls can both do it in this British kit, provided that they have this rather weird amalgam of kitchen and lab.

Don’t look too closely, though, at the Periodic Tables pinned to the walls on either side. With apologies for the rubbish image from my phone camera, I think you can get the idea here.

This is one of my favourites. It includes “Safe experiments in atomic energy”, which you can conduct with a bit of uranium ore. Apparently, some of the Gilbert kits also included a Geiger counter. Make sure an adult helps you, kids!

Here are the manuals for it – part magic, part nuclear.

But we are not so reckless today. Oh no. Instead, you get 35 “fun activities”… with “no chemicals”. Well, I should jolly well hope not!

This one speaks volumes about its times, which you can see at a glance was the 1970s. It is not exactly a chemistry kit in the usual sense, because for once the kids are doing their experiments outside. Now they are not making chemicals, but testing for them: looking for signs of pollution and contamination in the air and the waters. Johnny Horizon is here to save the world from the silent spring.

There is still a whiff of the old connection with magic here, and with the alchemical books of secrets (which are the subject of the CHF exhibition that brought me here).

But here we are now. This looks a little more like it.

What a contrast this is from the clean, shiny brave new world of yesteryear.

Many thanks to the CHF folks for dragging these things from their vaults.


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