Play Stuff Blog

The Strong’s historians, curators, librarians, and other staff offer insights into and anecdotes about the critical role of play in human development and the ways in which toys, dolls, games, and video games reflect cultural history. Learn even more about the museum’s archival materials, books, catalogs, and other ephemera through its Tumblr page.

Colorful Chemistry Sets

Chemcraft Set One, box lid, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkJohn and Harold Porter created their first chemistry set in 1915 after seeing the popularity of A. C. Gilbert's Erector Set. In 1920, Gilbert made his Gilbert chemistry outfit, with the clear intention of encouraging boys to become chemists. In the 19th century, chemistry sets were practical kits made for school use. Savvy teachers have known for years that chemistry classes become memorable when a molecule is put in context. For instance, sodium thiosulfate solution can be used to clean and polish silver. Chemistry sets for children focused on applications of science to daily life, adapting as the context changed from the 1920s industrial chemistry to the mid-century atomic energy focus on splitting atoms. Packaging of 1950s chemistry sets featured rockets, submarines, and satellites as science moved from the atomic age to the space age. While the images in advertisements and packaging show children doing experiments, some marketing targeted parents who hoped that their child would become a scientist. Porter Chemcraft sets boasted a tagline, "Experimenter Today ... Scientist Tomorrow."

Chemcraft Set One advertisement, booklet, The Strong, Rochester, New York

A recent acquisition of a 1920s Porter Chemcraft set has a box with colorful illustrations of children playing at experiments with a moon visible through the window. This chemistry set, Number 1 in a series, would have sold for one dollar in the 1920s. The earliest Porter Chemcraft sets were sold in cardboard boxes. Later chemistry sets used wooden or metal cases. Inside the Chemcraft set are glass test tubes, a spoon, stirring rods, and several wood containers with labels describing their contents: sulfur, sodium carbonate, sodium ferrocyanide, aluminum sulfate, tannic acid, sodium thiosulfate, logwood, and powdered iron metal. The accompanying booklet describes experiments "any boy or girl can perform with this outfit." Children could use the Chemcraft set to make vinegar, use purple hollyhocks as acid-base color indicator, separate gluten from flour, or make magic ink in a Prussian blue color.  

Chemcraft Set One, detail of chemical deterioration, The Strong, Rochester, New York ​Inside the 1920s Chemcraft set, I found the contents of the small wooden containers swelled with humidity and expanded. The chemicals had spilled inside the cardboard box tray and insert, damaging paper in a variety of ways. Some chemicals reacted with the acidic cardboard, leaving white crystals on the surface and swelling the cardboard to a weak and fragile state. Other chemicals mixed together in the bottom of the box tray, creating an array  ​ of colorful stains in brown, black, white, Prussian blue, pale yellow, and rust. Even with the set's original experiment booklet and some chemistry knowledge, it is hard to guess what has mixed or reacted inside the box. Some of the reactants had turned into their hydrated form after years in humid storage. I considered a matrix of reactions between any of the chemicals with any other chemical in the box.

Chemcraft Set One, box tray interior, The Strong, Rochester, New YorkSodium ferrocyanide in the chemistry set is also known as "Yellow Prussiate of Soda" in older chemical nomenclature, but the contents of the sodium ferrocyanide container have degraded to a faint blue after nearly a century in storage. Ferro cyanides are less toxic than other cyanide groups, but can react with acids to produce toxic cyanide gas. After nearly a hundred years, the cardboard box is deteriorating and acidic. Conservation treatment of the Chemcraft set aims to make the box free of hazards to people, prevent any noxious chemical off-gassing if placed on display, and reduce further c  ​hemical degradation of all the contents and the cardboard box. Approaching it with caution, I am slowly cleaning away the stains and chemical residues a little at a time.

Chemcraft Set One, booklet (verso), The Strong, Rochester, New York

​Today's young scientist can play with Thames and Kosmos chemistry sets. Some popular science experiments are more impromptu. The Internet has dozens of recipes for "slime," a product made using easily accessible household chemicals. The polyvinyl acetate and borax gel recipe is similar to recipes for conservation cleaning gels that remove stains from paper. Conservators use gel to suspend a cleaning agent and prevent direct contact of artifacts with water or solvent. Kids use their slimy gels to experiment with mixing ingredients and entertain with sensory play. Elmer's white glue experienced a shortage last year during the peak of slime-mania. Parents of slime-makers notice their contact lens solution disappear as kids raid the house for slime supplies. Just like experimenters today, the young experimenters of the 1920s probably snuck into the pantry for an egg and vinegar to try Chemcraft's "Experiment 122: Elastic Eggs." Experimenting with household chemistry is a timeless way to play.

 

A Genealogy of Fantasy Play (with a Special Nod to Iceland)

Today, fantasy role-playing video games—in which players assume the role of heroes wielding swords, casting spells, riding dragons, and battling monsters—are among the most popular and influential of games.

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Spin Master: Putting Their Own “Spin” on Toys since 1994

Think about some of the “must-have” toys you’ve seen (or even procured) over the last few years. How about the playful robotic dog Zoomer? Or the small, colorful, hooked building balls called Bunchems?

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Oh Brother! Oh Sister!

Mothers get their day in May. Fathers are feted in June. And what about sisters and brothers? Their turn comes on April 10—Siblings Day. Siblings Day hasn’t earned recognition as a federal holiday (yet), but since 1998, governors have proclaimed Siblings Day in 49 states. From experience and observation, I know that sibling relationships can take any number of different configurations. And that made me think about the famous siblings that come readily to mind from the world of toys, dolls, and games.

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Postwar Plastic Playthings: Affordability, Resources and Military Surplus

I first became interested in the increase of plastic in children’s toys through my own daughter’s toys, especially since my undergrad degree was in Environment and Health, with a fourth year focus on Bisphenol A (also known as BPA) in baby bottles. Throughout my Masters studies, I focused on the central question of why we keep what we do, how we make those decisions, and the ways in which we’ve come to value or devalue certain things.

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Playing with Puppies

We have all heard the saying that a dog is man’s (and woman’s too) best friend. We love dogs so much that they even have their own special day—National Puppy Day! Canine companionship has been around for eons and extends from pets to working dogs. Whether they are snuggle buddies, sled pullers, or law enforcement assistants, dogs play a significant role in our society and in our hearts. So it should be no surprise that their popularity also carries over into children’s literature and playthings.

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Play for All Seasons

I receive a lot of strange looks whenever I tell people that I look forward to the end of summer. Perhaps your face has morphed into such an expression after reading that. But there is logic behind my claim.

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Rolling Out the First Driving Game

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"True Hollywood” Toy Stories: Tales of the Games and Toys We Love

When I was an undergraduate, I was obsessed with the television program E! True Hollywood Story. Each week, I took a salacious rollercoaster ride through the ups and downs of a celebrity’s life. Right before each commercial break, the narrator assured me that either the star was about to be saved from his downward spiral or that her glory days were going to come to a screeching halt. I loved the drama and the “truth is stranger than fiction” element of the program.

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The Strong Launches Women in Games Initiative

For many decades, women have played key roles in the design, production, manufacture, marketing, and writing of video games, and yet their history in the gaming industry is too little preserved and too often underappreciated.

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“Down at Fraggle Rock!”

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