In their mid-20th century heyday, chemistry sets inspired kids to grow up to be scientists. Intel founder Gordon Moore, for example, credits a chemistry set with sparking his lifelong interest in science (not to mention some pretty neat explosions along the way).
Chemistry sets seem to have fallen out of favor in recent years, but there’s a movement to bring them back—or at least recapture some of the unstructured experimentation the old sets encouraged. In this gallery, we take a look at some vintage sets from the collection of the Chemical Heritage Foundation Museum in Philadelphia. They provide an interesting perspective on how public attitudes towards science shifted over the course of the 20th century, says Kristen Frederick-Frost, the museum’s curator of artifacts and collections manager.
In the early to mid 1900s, there was growing optimism that science could solve many of the important problems facing the world, Frederick-Frost says. Chemistry kits reflected this enthusiasm, featuring what was new and exciting at the time: Plastics! Atomic Energy! Outer Space! It was common for the box of a kit to feature both an image of a young boy playing with the kit and an image of a scientist in his lab—the man the boy would grow up to be. “It’s about much more than chemistry, it’s about creating the ideal citizen through play,” she said.