When I was a school girl, my parents received Sears catalogs on a regular basis. Each fall, a large Sears Wishbook , with over 300 pages, would arrive in the mail. I remember pouncing on these catalogs, skipping over all the stupid clothes and kitchen curtains, and going straight to the toy section. My eyes were always on the same few items, year after year.
I wanted a chemistry set.
I got clothes, books, and early on, Barbie dolls, and Easy Bake sets (but not the one with the oven – I got the one with little pots, pans, bowls, and tiny mixes of Betty Crocker cake and pie crust).
If you are old enough to remember, chemistry sets used to be really cool. Like, Doctor Who bow tie cool. They had actual chemicals, glass test tubes with spring clamps, stands, alcohol burners. You got a manual that explained actual chemistry. I know that I asked for one of these for Christmas, for many years.
From vintage chemistry set
I also wanted a microscope and dissection kit. The kit came with preserved frogs or worms, instructions on dissecting, lessons on biology, and a microscope, along with the necessary tools. I’m sure that it wasn’t a very good quality microscope, but when you are 8 or 10, you just want to see the presence of the weird things swimming around in the pond water. You want to know that something is there. I never wanted one of those toy doctor kits, though, because I could tell they were merely toys, and I wanted the real stuff!
We had a large coffee-table sized book, that as best I can recall was printed by Reader’s Digest (or maybe Time-Life?) all about the animal kingdom, full of slick color photos. I read the entire book several times, but I remember most clearly reading the sections about dead and living fossils many, many times. Dinosaurs, horseshoe crabs, the duckbill platypus, the coelacanthe.
My son Travis and his friend, with Coelacanthe, at Aquarium in Vancouver, BC. I finally got to see one.
A rock tumbler! The kit was a motorized tumbling container, that you could fill with varying grades of sand. You inserted your chosen rocks (some came with the kit), and started tumbling. As the rocks became smoother, you substituted finer and finer grit until you had a fully polished rock.
Another thing I wanted: A Creepy Crawler Thingmaker. More than half of my friends had these toys. It consisted of a hot plate, with a set of metal molds. The molds were for bugs, worms, creatures, but you could also get flowers and other items. You poured colored ‘plastic goop’ into the mold, and using tongs, set the mold onto the plate and baked until the plastic set, after which you could pop out the flexible plastic creature. I had a handful of creatures that I made, all by using my friends’ Thingmakers. How did the plastic turn from liquid to solid, and why wouldn’t it melt back to liquid? I wanted to know.
Burn fingers here! The original ones had bare metal tongs.
I thought Erector sets looked pretty intriguing, as well, but I was less mechanically minded than I was interested in the biological and ‘wet’ sciences, so I also didn’t find Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, or make-your-own-telescope kits as interesting. I don’t think I asked for any of those items, not that I would have received them. (I remember my first library book, called either “My Solar System” or “The Solar System” with actual black and white pictures of Nepture and Pluto and Saturn, just hanging there in the sky, millions of miles away! I was in second grade. I would pay a lot of money for a copy of this book. Probably published in 1961-1964. Email me, and let’s talk.)
One of my favorite gifts.
One toy I did receive after asking, was the Visible Woman model kit. In this, you assembled, glued, and painted the various bones and organs, and assembled them into a 16″ tall clear shell that represented the outer covering, i.e., the skin. My dad built model airplanes, so we had the proper cements and paints available. The instructions included descriptions of the organs, and the colors. I recall mixing yellow and pink to get the correct color for the stomach. I was very proud of this, and took it to my 5th grade science class for show-and-tell. Unfortunately, I had included the ‘wonder of life’ option that showed a woman approximately six months into pregnancy, which my teacher thought might a bit mature for the class, but I was able to swap out the standard pieces for the intestines and abdomen plate.
Why didn’t I get the gifts I asked for? I don’t really know, as I haven’t asked my parents about this. (Hey, Dad, you read my blog? How come?) I know these items were in the Boy’s Toys sections. I received books, but my other gifts tended towards teaching me what a girl, going to grade school in the Vietnam Era, needed to know to become a wife and mother? Baby dolls, not so much, but a few Barbie dolls along with my mom’s sewing skills in making some clothes for them. I had a collection of Troll dolls from an earlier age, along with a little cave-shaped carrying case (which I still have). I got clothes, but although my parents didn’t get me the science kits I craved, I also didn’t get pink-and-lace clothing. There was never any attempt to make me “girlie”. I had nothing frilly. My parents didn’t discourage my interest in science, they just didn’t know what to do with it, I think.
SO COOL! Keep your mouth closed when swimming. Credit: John J. Lee
My first real science class was biology, in the 8th grade. I finally got to dissect that frog and a perch, and look at creepy wormy things swimming in the aquarium water. In 9th grade, we took Physical Science, where we learned about fractional crystallization and other cool chemistry stuff. From that point on, I always knew I’d do something with science. I’ve made a good career as a chemical engineer, and get to use the physical sciences I’ve learned. I’m still learning. But if you look at my library, I seem to have a lot of biology-related books: a good-sized collection on the Black Death, the history of small pox and yellow fever eradication, evolution.
I eventually bought a rock tumbling kit for my sons. I set it up in the garage (they are LOUD and you have to run them for a month), but after the first batch, they weren’t interested. I also bought a chemistry set for my oldest son. Chemistry sets from the 1960s are considered somewhat dangerous now. You might CUT YOUR FINGER. I helped Richard prepare the set, but frankly the current experiments were boring and laughable, along the lines of putting baking soda and vinegar into a bottle, to blow up a balloon. He had no interest in it. In the interests of being completely safe, they had removed all the chemicals and turned chemistry into the equivalent of paper-mache volcanoes. (The Thingmakers are considered “horribly dangerous” because no one should ever grow up with having burned their finger on a hot plate. Or a bruise. Or last place on the relay race.)
I did eventually become a wife, and a mother, and an engineer. I tried to teach my kids science using oranges and flashlights, and waking them up at 2 a.m. to see a lunar eclipse. I kept the science fiction books at their eye level. They are both boys, but I would have done the same for a daughter. In fact, I probably would have pushed a daughter harder, so that she knew the chemistry sets were way cooler than Brittany Spears. Or who ever the current teeny-bop craze might be. Me, I liked Star Trek. The original Star Trek.
Categories: Family, Feminism, Women