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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
- Spectrum Scientifics
- Whatever happened to kids’ chemistry sets? (bbc.co.uk)
- The decline of the chemistry set (cartesianproduct.wordpress.com)
- microscopes, telescopes, chemistry sets and erector sets (tingilinde.typepad.com)
- Are we creating a generation of risk-averse kids? (canada.com)
- Science Kits See Strong Sales in Down Economy (prweb.com)
Memories, memories… I do have a daughter, and her microscope wasn’t getting enough use at home, so she took it to her (5-student) middle school classroom. Earlier this week they were looking at a dragonfly wing through it. She is about halfway through the classic old Heinlein juvenile sf novels (Starman Jones, Red Planet, Podkayne of Mars, etc.) and is a skilled frog-catcher. She is also, since about age 3, very fond of frilly, swirly, and until recently, pink and/or purple clothing. They get VERY dirty when you are newt-hunting at the pond in them, but I’m willing to work around it.
She and I have found that we can really enjoy watching zero-star, made-for-TV, Syfy original monster movies: Ice Spiders, Dinocroc vs Supergator, Stonehenge Apocalypse and the matchlessly bad MegaPiranha. (Seriously, as hilariously bad as movies can get…and clearly meant to be ‘good’.) I knew my parenting concerns were over when she turned to me and said, “Mom, why isn’t Supergator sleeping? He already ate Bikini Chick, shouldn’t he be in a digestive torpor?” She was I think 11 when she made that cogent observation…
The only time we talk about “Boys Toys” and “Girls Toys” is when she prefers one McDonald’s gimcrack to another. How much the world has changed, and much of it for the better. But I’d love to give her a Thingmaker or a real EasyBake Oven, the kind where you burn your hand trying to get the pan out of the rack…
I particularly liked HG Wells’ Outline of History, at least the first part, on prehistory. One book that I read 3 times was one for teenagers about recent geology and evolution, primarily in North America. It “taught the controversy,” the creationist objections to geological explanations of folding of mountain and more recent scraping of lakes and landscape by glaciers. I vividly remember the argument, “just imagine bigger waves”. It appears that “flood geology” has not progressed at all in the last 50 years.
While not being particularly science-oriented as a child I ended studying science and becoming a doctor. My own daughter is almost ten, and without any real prompting has two great loves – science (especially biology) and history. I can’t wait to see how her future evolves.
I was listening to a radio program recently about the demise of the chemistry set – lots of callers rang in with tales of explosions, burns, singed eyebrows and other injuries. The decline in Chemistry sets seems to be linked to the rise of the helicopter parent. While missing digits and burns are never a good thing, I can’t help but think a whole generation of children have lost something……
I got the chemistry set and the microscope when I asked.I used the ‘scope more than the chemistry set I’m afraid. (I actually found a rotifer in pond water once!). It took me a couple of years of asking before I got an erector set; I’m not sure why.
I also subscribed for years to Things of Science, a delightful set of monthly kits. You would have lover them.
I ended up taking computer science and MIcrobiology in college. Being more interested in protista than in Big pharma science, I went into programming for a living.
If you would have asked your Aunt Dianne for a chemistry set , etc, she would have gotten them for you. Honest.
I wanted Santa to bring it to me 🙂
The Sears Wishbook brings back a lot of memories. We used to pore over that every year when it came. I always wanted the wooden blocks set, for some reason, but never got it. The chemistry set was pretty cool, although when I got one, I was most interested in the alcohol burner (budding pyromaniac).
I never thought to ask for a science kit. Looking back, I also didn’t always realize I was ‘doing science’ as a kid.
My dad is an avid hunter- that means he knew everything about animals and trees and nature and was always telling me all about it. I didn’t really need the dissection kit since we had fish and all kinds of animals to actually dissect (although in that context, I guess it’s more like butchering than dissecting).
I remember bringing a deer heart to school at the request of my 4th grade science teacher. I brought it in on the school bus in a brown paper lunch bag. The neighbor boy didn’t believe and was quite shocked I wasn’t fibbing when I said it wasn’t my lunch, it was a deer heart.
Now that my daughter is 2.5yo, we have the net at the pond, we find all manner of animal poop in the woods, etc. It’s fun.
I wonder where the next generation of US chemists will come from. Every adult chemist with an advanced degree that I have ever spoken to, admits to some sort of chemical mishap on their road to a chem career. Mostly small explosions. Every. Single. One. If those same chemists were kids now, they’d be arrested and kicked of school for getting too creative with vinegar and baking soda.
My own chemistry set was from the late 70’s. The more explosive and toxic chemicals had already been removed, but it could still be used for polymerization of sulfur, acid base, changing the coordination of inorganic salts, etc. But I had to get creative and supplement with bleach and pool chemicals, automotive supplies, etc to get the cooler expts to work.
There was also a little booklet full of suggested lessons that was very good for capturing spills.
I’m probably the exception, the, as I never had the chemistry set nor any explosions. I did start on a BS in chemistry, although I switched to chemical engineering because paychecks.