On Being a Girl, and Chemistry Sets

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.

From vintage chemistry set

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.

Burn fingers here! The original ones had bare metal tongs.

One of my favorite gifts.

SO COOL! Keep your mouth closed when swimming. Credit: John J. Lee

Categories: Family, Feminism, Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

10 replies

  1. 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…

  2. 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.

  3. 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……

  4. 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.

  5. If you would have asked your Aunt Dianne for a chemistry set , etc, she would have gotten them for you. Honest.

  6. 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).

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

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