Vintage Chemistry Sets

By Windell Oskay

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A good friend recently presented us with his estate sale find: two 1960’s era vintage chemistry sets. One set is big, white, and mysterious, the other is smaller but showier.  Let’s take a look at what’s inside!

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Let’s start with the giant but “unmarked” set: a plain white steel box, with latches and hinges.  Once you unbuckle the front latches, both the left and right sides fold open.

And when we do open the case, we find… a disaster zone!Vintage Chemistry Sets 2

The left side of the case is filled with little jars of stuff.

Apparently, this set should have come with not only a handle, but a giant THIS SIDE UP arrow on the outside.   The good news is that all of the chemicals started out in sealed containers, and the vast majority of them do remain intact.

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On the other side of the case, we have glassware, assorted accessories, little boxes of stuff, and some places where the literature would normally be stored.

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With a little bit of cleanup, things look much, much better.
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This is a Lionel Porter “chemcraft” chemistry set, and all of the chemicals come in numbered bottles.  That helps quite a bit in organizing things. There were some duplicates, suggesting that this may contain the contents of more than one merged set.

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Not every bottle was intact.  One of our two No. 7 Sodium Bisulphate containers had expanded and burst sometime in the last few decades.  (This may become problematic if crown of thorns starfish invade our laboratory.)

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Digging in a little bit further, we find some ring stands, corks, and a scale that will need to be dug out.

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And some fine looking glassware!

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“ATOMIC ENERGY”:  Radioactive Screen and Uranium Ore.
The white square behind it is most likely asbestos, for putting above your alcohol burner.

There was also a radium-filled spinthariscope included with the chemistry set.

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A fully functional diffraction-grating spectroscope, not so different from the handheld type available today.

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A jar of ancient litmus paper.

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Test tube holders, and a tiny molecular model set.

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This wooden test tube rack is surprisingly well made, and the fact that these are Kimax brand test tubes (not pyrex) suggest that these were aftermarket additions to the chemistry set.

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An impressive array of cork and rubber stoppers.

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The Lionel hydrometer, for measuring liquid density.

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The little boxes of stuff: Litmus paper, weights for the scale, flame test wire, and so forth. These are held into the wall by little paper tabs.

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The scale, all cleaned up.

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Two more accessories from the box: An electric test tube stirrer and a mechanical centrifuge.

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The centrifuge works like a classic toy top from the 1950’s: You push the top down to spin the arms out. It fits two tiny test tubes in its arms.

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And finally, an overview. Click here for the full-sized picture.

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The second chemistry set is much smaller, but has a marvelous metal case with full-color printing on the outside. (And the implicit reminder that chemistry sets were for boys.)

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This set comes with the same scale, except for branding.

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Many of the chemicals are the same, but in new, updated bottles.

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There are also some interlopers, quite obviously merged from a Skil-Craft brand chemistry set.

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And a few other add-on chemicals, from Gilbert chemistry sets and Perfect brand.

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Of Lionel Porter, Gilbert, Skil Craft, and Perfect, only Perfect is still around today and producing chemistry equipment.

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Finally, there were a few other chemicals that didn’t quite fit in the tin cases of the chemistry sets.

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Calcium Chloride, a popular ingredient for molecular gastronomy and for making pickles crunchy. It’s been in the bottle long enough to have grown some beautiful crystals.

The label indicates that it’s from Arroyo Pharmacy, (which used to be) at the corner of Laurel and Arroyo and San Carlos (in San Carlos California), complete with an old-style phone number.

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Beautiful copper sulphate crystals, from Owl Drug company, 1301 Broadway in Oakland California. Also, POISON, without any antidote!

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Degreased iron filings. (For fun with iron filings, please see this blog post.)

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Powdered Alum from The Alameda Pharmacy, in San Jose, complete with the name or the proprietor, and another old-style phone number.

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Last, and certainly not least, from the Joseph Dixon Crucible Co., established 1827, comes this Dixon’s Ticonderoga brand flake graphite. Flake graphite is an industrial lubricant, and the brand is so named because the graphite was processed in Ticonderoga, New York. Of course, Dixon was the inventor of the wood and graphite pencil, and today the Dixon Ticonderoga company no longer makes crucibles, but pencils and other art supplies.