INDIANAPOLIS — As part of the Indiana State Museum’s “Year of Science,” an exhibit of children’s chemistry sets through the years sparks memories and wonder for visitors now through Jan. 15, 2018.
The exhibit traces the history of science-based toys in the last 115 years, particularly the development of and the rise in popularity of children’s chemistry sets.
Early chemistry sets evolved from magic trick sets, you’ll learn through the exhibit. One turn-of-the century chemistry kit was developed and manufactured by amateur magician Alfred Canton Gilbert, whose chemistry sets were sold until 1967. Brothers Harold and John Porter also used magic to entice children to learn about science. Working out of their basement in Hagerstown, Maryland, the two assembled chemical sets that produced safe effects such as liquids that changed colors and invisible ink.
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Some sets from the 1930s featured instruction booklets that gave suggestions for stage patter between tricks for performing in front of an audience.
A fascinating facet of the exhibit is the history of the targeted marketing of science toys through magazine ads and the product packaging. Early chemistry sets for children often used the allure of the exotic — a robed figure in a turban on the cover of the box — to entice children to make a purchase. As science focus replaced the focus on magic, most packaging and advertising of chemistry sets featured boys. It wasn’t until the late 1950s and early 1960s that the photo on the front of a chemistry set box included a girl, and not until the mid-1980s that African-American children — both male and female — were featured in science toy advertising.
The exhibit also includes other toys based on scientific principles. The stereoscope, used around the turn of the century, was an early version of the popular Viewmaster, which came into existence in the 1920s and 30s. Tinker Toys, erector sets and other building sets were given their due as toys that promoted creative thinking. Visitors could build rockets or simple machines with construction sets set up at tables throughout the exhibit.
The popular visible man model — showing the skeleton and all the organs through a clear plastic human form — and a variety of microscope and slide kits were on display. Also included in the display was a biology kit, complete with a well-preserved dead frog for dissecting, and a toy Geiger counter for measuring radiation.
In the 60s and early 70s, the focus of chemistry sets shifted to ecology. Parker Brothers put out a chemistry set called the Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit. It promoted scientific play by encouraging children and teens to test the water and the air for pollution.
Lest 21st century children feel left out, one display featured items from the Harry Potter Spells and Potions chemistry set that included a plastic wand, a cauldron and hydrophobic sand, a substance that feels like sand, but sticks together like clay.
However, like many 21st century parents, my first thought at the mention of chemistry sets is “safety hazard.” This exhibit — strenuously and rightly supporting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education — encourages science-based play. Very little mention is made, if any, of what kinds of chemicals and substances came with these early chemistry sets. I did a little internet research — and you can, too — and it wasn’t as bad as I would have thought.
But the premise of the exhibit is that technology of play — and the natural curiosity of children — leads to the scientists of tomorrow. The nostalgia of wandering through this collection of toys many visitors may have once played with is free.
Science at Play runs through Jan. 15, 2018 at the Indiana State Museum, 650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis. Visit indianamusuem.org for hours of operation and admission fees.