Vintage Chemistry Sets

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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.

14 thoughts on “Vintage Chemistry Sets

  1. I remember the asbestos mats from my high school chemistry days. Would they still have been made of asbestos in the mid ’70s?

  2. I collected many a set from yard sales when I was a kid (unfortunately they are lost….)
    The local “Hobby store” in Hutchinson KS. carried extra chemicals that you could use to supplement or replace ones from the sets. Nitrogen Tri-Iodide anyone?

  3. Thank you so much for the memories. I had a great time with my Lionel-Porter set, which was just like the one your friend dug up.

    I did try to burn down the garage a few times, but I also learned a great deal about chemistry, and, as a result, spent most of my time in AP Chem wondering why so many people were struggling with it.

    For any parents wondering about getting a chemistry set for your kids: Heck yes. There is no substitute for the wonder and comprehension that comes from hands-on learning.

  4. Nice sets. Wonder if the intended experiments would still work with all of those ancient chemicals.

    Errata: Of course, Dixon was _not_ the inventor of the wood and graphite pencil. It was invented about 300 years earlier. Dixon developed the mass production of pencils.

  5. I just saw an old Atomic Chemistry Set at an auction – it still had a lot of stuff left in vials – including what was labeled as Uranium. Uh huh. I wasn’t curious enough to bid on it just to find out. And I’m not sure which was more disturbing: that they made it in the first place or that they’re still around.

  6. These are fun, and are all over eBay; I’ve bought a couple, but they lack the “local flavor” of the chemicals purchased in the ancient bay area!
    Your picture of “ancient litmus paper” doesn’t look like litmus; it’s too saturated, neither pink nor blue, and it looks homemade. I don’t have a good guess what it would be, though.
    The “calcium chloride” is particularly interesting; it probably started out as a solid, and absorbed enough moisture from the air (even through the bottle seal) to dissolve itself (a major use for Calcium Chloride is as an air-drying agent), and THEN formed crystals.
    These sets aren’t old enough to contain the really “interesting” chemicals.
    I remember Perfect chemicals well; $0.25/bottle at the local hobby shop. Alas, my collection of stuff did not survive the family move that happened when I was in college; the movers refused to touch any of it (perhaps wisely), and I wasn’t there to pursue alternate transportation. (also, alas, college chemistry was not nearly so fun…)
    The most “valuable” chemicals are likely to be the things that are no longer considered safe enough for kid’s chemistry sets. Cobalt Chloride now sells for something like $10/oz, and “Chrome Alum” is difficult to find (it makes great crystals!)

    There’s a little children’s “discovery” museum in Salem, OR, which, while aimed at children rather younger than ours when we went there, had an interesting exhibit about A.C Gilbert; one of the pioneers of science kits for kids…

  7. The Lionel-Porter set came after the Porter. I believe it was in the early 60s that Lionel bought up Porter. But Porter went back to the 20s or 30s. I went through a few Chemcraft Chemestry sets when I was a kid – first a somewhat basic one and then the biggest one they had. It had the Uranium and the Spectroscope and the Asbestos screen in it, and I’m still here. How’d we ever survive without being told that EVERYTHING would kill us?
    Many additional chemicals that would have DHS ramming on your door today, were available at the local drug store back then (late 50s, yes I’m THAT old.) A cardboard container of Potassium Nitrate or Sulpher was about 49 cents! And like a cherry on top, I lived next door to a chemical warehouse in Queens, NY. They often left the big roll-up door in the back open during the summer ;-) One of my sons bought me a set, just like the one I had in 1958, from ebay for Christmas a few years ago. I put it under the tree each Christmas since. The “Mystery” set shown is definately a bastardization of many sets and third-party items – fascinating though. Someone was a serious hobbyist.
    Thanks for the trip back!

  8. Thanks for the giggles!

    I had the exact same set (Chemcraft) as a kid., and I agree that Chem1 wasn’t nearly as tough as my classmates had said it was…

  9. There was some kind of industrial drug store / chemist shop in Brooklyn on Ave U near Coney Island Ave (IIRC) back in the 60’s called LeFaye where I purchased larger quantities of chemicals to supliment my chemisty set. They had “sal ammoniac” which is the mineral name for ammonium chloride used as the electrolyte in dry cell batteries. Also stuff like strontium nitrate which provided the blue color in fireworks IIRC. I also was able to get potassium nitrate and other stuff that today would be hard to find. I made a lot of harmless fireworks as a kid, mostly flash and color.

    The “Uranium” found in those old chemistry sets was just the unrefined ore that contained trace amonts of the stuff, not enought to hurt you really, just enought to tickle a geiger counter and make you feel like mad scientist.

  10. Growing up in the 50s, I had the top Chemcraft set and all of my friends had either Chemcraft, Porter or Gilbert sets. We all did every experiment in every manual, trading chemicals and manuals around when necessary. Often we refilled the bottles and did the experiments a second or third time. We made rubber, glass and plastic and did some stuff with electrochemistry and the “nuclear chemistry” experiments. We were in 4th, 5th and 6th grades. By the time we got to junior high, we knew Chemistry backwards and forwards. From that group of kids came five engineers, a physicist, a doctor, two biology teachers, a biochemical researcher, a chemist, a forester (superintendant of the Tongass National Forest) and a science journalist. Every time we get together for reunions we agree the Chemistry sets, plus the Erector sets, Microscope sets and Electricity sets were what launched us into these STEM careers.

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