The history (and future) of kid's chemistry sets

Sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, my mom bought me a chemistry set. I was in grade school, but I remember thinking it was pretty cool. I also remember being slightly disappointed (particularly after being told that I could only play with it in the garage) that there was nothing in there that could actually blow up.

Many of us are nostalgic for the lost golden era of certifiably dangerous children's chemistry sets. Even if we weren't alive when that era occurred, we're still, sort of, vicariously nostalgic. At the BBC, Alex Hudson has a story about what was really in those misty colored chemistry sets that have lodged themselves into our cultural memory. Along the way, we learn that their demise was only partly to do with unfounded safety fears—some of the fears were founded, for instance, and in other cases, money and seemingly unrelated legal issues got in the way of fun.

By the 1920s and 30s children had access to substances which would raise eyebrows in today's more safety-conscious times. There were toxic ingredients in pesticides, as well as chemicals now used in bombs or considered likely to increase the risk of cancer. And most parents will not need to be told of the dangers of the sodium cyanide found in the interwar kits or the uranium dust present in the "nuclear" kits of the 1950s.

Most will know cyanide as a deadly poison, but one of its main applications is in gold mining. It can make gold dissolve into water.

...Used often to test the presence of starch, the iodine solution once seen in kits is now regulated as a list I chemical in the US because of its use in the manufacture of methamphetamine. It can also be lethal if more than 2g of pure iodine is consumed.

Read the rest of this story at the BBC


  1.  A childhood friend inherited one of those metal-cased Gilbert chemistry sets, probably late-50s vintage. The book was full of fun activities like making water softener, and turning pennies silver.

    I don’t remember if we actually did any of the approved, recipe-style activities. Mostly we took note of the tube of “glycerin,” and regretted that the set didn’t have “nitro” so we couldn’t mix them and make dynamite.

    1. By my time, most of the ‘fun’ compounds had already been removed from chemistry sets.

      However, a child with enough curiosity and inclination will almost invariably find ways around most obstacles (Especially when inspired by that copy of The Encyclopedia of Chemical Engineering they discovered at the public library. ;) ).

      I still managed to keep myself supplied with black gunpowder, and even managed to acquire/produce all the ingredients to make that dynamite of yours (thank goodness I already had enough wisdom in me to know better than to try!).

    2.  I, clearly, need a Gilbert Chemistry set… Did it not have nitric & sulphuric acid in it (nitrating mixture)? Plenty good for the making of bangs.
       Apropos dangerous chemistry sets, I can remember having two given as birthday presents, would have been 79/80 probably, maybe a year or two later at most, and both of them had sulphur, potassium nitrate, iodine, nitric, suphuric and hydrochloric acid in them. One of them had phenolphthalein in as well for the ‘water into wine’ trick IIRC, which if ingested pretty much makes you shit out your insides. Aaaah, happy days…

  2. Coming Soon, the nerf chemistry set.  Contains no harmful chemicals, as a fact of fact it contains no chemicals at all.  100% safe!

  3. I had some crappy chemistry set in the early 1980s that came with “experiments” such as mixing dyes together and watching them change colors.  I think I learned negative science from that set.

    1.  Really, any more, it’s going to take parents proactively involving themselves in their childrens’ scientific exploration (Maybe even *gasp* going so far as to themselves learn .) , instead of expecting the school system to do it for them, not to mention just being able to acquire any useful compounds.

  4. No kidding. The Gilbert set I had in the late 60s would get you a cage in Gitmo, these days.
    Now, if you get anything more reactive than baking soda and vinegar… (grumble- grouse, snark about warning labels and talcum powder, geezer noises)!

  5. By the 1980s, I thought the chemistry sets were lame because they didn’t have all the really fun stuff I had when I was a kid. I have had the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab! Even better, we had Lawn Darts, and Creepy Crawlers. Creepy Crawler consisted of a hot plate, molds and “plastic goop” that you poured into the molds. You put the molds on the burner and cooked the plastic until it hardened. Can you say second degree burns?

      1. In retrospect, the lawn darts are probably less harmful than the Jordan almonds, pastel mints and fake fruit slices.

      2. David, my family still has lawn darts. It’s part of the traditional Koerth Easter celebrations.

        And trepanation festival.

        1. We haven’t lost anybody yet. I think it’s because, from a very young age, little Koerths are taught a basic rule: You ALWAYS stay behind the person throwing the lawn darts. 

  6. “I also remember being slightly disappointed … that there was nothing in there that could actually blow up.”

    The kit my grandparents got for me (circa 1984; I don’t remember the manufacturer) included a rock of pure sulfur (intended to demonstrate the texture and odor of the substance). Naturally, living in South Florida at the time, charcoal and potassium nitrate fertilizer were pretty common, so I managed to find other uses for the sulfur rock.

  7. When I was a kid, I wanted to make my own fireworks. There were plenty of books at the library with lots of recipes and techniques. There was a common refrain in these books which went something like this: “make fireworks out of common household ingredients, or materials you can find at your local pharmacy…”

    Of course not one of these could be found in my chemistry set. So I actually did go to my local pharmacist to buy “flowers of sulfur” and “saltpeter” and “powderised zinc and aluminum”… the pharmacist who was an old guy just shrugged and told me I was about 10-15 years too late. Pharmacies no longer compounded their own cures, merely put pill in bottles…

  8. Does anyone else remember the old Scott Corbett series of kids’ adventure stories (“The Lemonade Trick”, “The Disappearing Dog Trick”, etc.)? Featured a kid who got an old chemistry set from a mysterious lady in the park (Mrs. Graymalkin?) whose son had outgrown it. The twist was that – because the chemistry set was old – the results were never quite what they were supposed to be. Zaniness ensued.

    Loved those books.

  9. After exhausting the little Gilbert bottles, we found saltpeter in the McCormick spice rack at a nearby country store, and the same place had a butcher counter where they sold sulfur by the pound. We mixed that with sugar and some crushed charcoal  to make great smoke bombs, and if we funneled it into empty aerosol cans you could even get an explosion. Underwater fuse came from a hobby shop.

  10. Using the iodine to make meth?  What a waste!   We used it to make Nitrogen Tri-Iodide :-) 
    However, we had to stop when the younger sister of the guy whose basement it was in got her finger messed up by playing with a batch that hadn’t dried yet.

    Also, the cardboard cases from used Estes rocket engines made good firecracker casing, filled with homemade gunpowder and whatever flame coloring agent we’d add (usually strontium nitrate from road flares.)

  11. Ooh, this brings back memories. I had a wonderful chemistry set, bought by my parents when I was seven or eight, that would be mid-1950s. Happy days… mixing potassium permanganate and glycerine on my desk in my new school in Bristol, UK; school had an outside toilet block, I painted a  saturated solution of ammonium nitrate round the top of the toilet bowls and put the seat down very gently. Wonderful bangs when someone sat on the seat, brought a new meaning to the term ‘thunderbox’. How to make new friends instantly. :-) No, I didn’t get expelled, quite. There’s a high security police station on that site now, nothing to do with me, honest, it was all too long ago. Best of all, there was a real chemist’s shop, supplying real chemicals, very near my home, for restocking the set.

  12. My dad is a retired chemistry prof.  He’s said on a few occasions that if the chemistry sets of his childhood had been as dumbed-down and safetified as the modern ones, he never would have gone into chemistry.

  13. As Figural notes – chemists shops in the day also sold actual useful chemical supplies, as well as pre-formulated meds.  Whatever spending money my dad got, much of it went there.

    Apparently the chemists occasionally popped in to talk with my grandmother, to make sure she was alright with their selling her son some particularly poisonous or volatile thing.

  14. My chemistry kit (circa 1961) had all sorts of fun. The best item was a vial of mercury with official instructions to make “silver” pennies by rubbing the  mercury onto the coins with my finger tips.

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