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A.C. Gilbert Chemistry Set: Building Future Scientists

by Jessica Kosinski


The year 1923 was an incredible one. Many new inventions were created that year. Those inventions are all reaching a major milestone in 2023. They are turning 100 years old. One of the top inventions in the world of children’s toys in 1923 was the A.C. Gilbert chemistry set. Let’s take a peek at how it was invented and its influences on other sets, pop culture, and career choices ever since.

Who Was A.C. Gilbert?

Alfred Carlton Gilbert
Alfred Carlton Gilbert

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born in Salem, Oregon in 1884. In his early life, he was known as a star track and field athlete. Pole vaulting was one of several events in which he broke records. However, he eventually had to choose a career path. He almost went into medicine, but instead, he opted to pursue a career as a magician.

Gilbert’s choice to go into magic eventually led him to found Mysto Manufacturing in 1907. The company started out producing magic sets. Eventually, he re-branded the company as A.C. Gilbert Co. and branched off into the production of various toys.

In 1913, the company hit it big when it released its now-famous erector sets for the first time. Eventually, it also produced microscopes, robots, and other toys with a primary focus on encouraging children to love science and invention.

The Introduction of the American Chemistry Set

Porter Chemical Tricks

Many early chemistry sets were English, and they were not toys. They were produced for students and scientists. These often incorporated chemicals imported from Germany. The start of World War I put a stop to that supply chain, but not before some Americans began to take notice. The Porter Brothers of Hagerstown, Maryland ran a chemical company. They took inspiration from European chemistry sets and A.C. Gilbert’s already popular erector sets. Using those influences, they created the first American toy chemistry sets.

The Popularity of the A.C. Gilbert Chemistry Set

The Porter brothers may have started the chemistry set craze, but A.C. Gilbert was not about to be left in the dust. In 1923, the A.C. Gilbert chemistry set hit the market. The set garnered the prestigious Good Housekeeping seal of approval at the time, despite its dubious contents. For example, it included an explosives experiment. Yet, boys were thrilled by A.C. Gilbert’s chemistry sets. It soon became the favorite. Girls, on the other hand, were excluded from the company’s marketing campaigns until the 1950s. That was when the company finally released a pink lab technician set marketed specifically for girls. By the 1960s, marketing campaigns changed again to market A.C. Gilbert chemistry sets as equally fun for boys and girls.

More Chemistry Sets Hit the Market, Along With More Concerns

1936 Gilbert Chemistry Set box
1936 Gilbert Chemistry Set box for Boys

At that time, the success of Porters and A.C. Gilbert inspired other companies to start producing chemistry sets. It seemed like they were toys that would endure forever as favorites. In fact, they inspired many children to become scientists. However, they were not without their faults. Many sets contained dangerous items, such as blowtorches and poisonous chemicals. Parents soon started to take notice, and sales declined from the 1960s through the next few decades.

The Late 1980s/Early 1990s Chemistry Set Comeback

Lab Tech Set For Girls
Lab Tech Set For Girls

Despite the bad reputation chemistry sets had from the 1960s through part of the 1980s, times were again changing. Issues like the Chernobyl disaster and the AIDS epidemic were focusing a spotlight back on science, and many parents wanted their children to eventually choose careers in science. As a result, there was a new interest in chemistry set production. However, there were two major changes. The first was that A.C. Gilbert Co. itself was now out of the picture, having declared bankruptcy in 1967 after management changes and poor business decisions caused declines in sales. The second was that new chemistry set makers were putting safety first. They still took inspiration from A.C. Gilbert, the Porters, and other early chemistry set producers. Yet, they made sure to leave hazardous materials out of their new chemistry sets. They also incorporated safety measures. For example, glass components were replaced with plastic. Safety goggles were also common accessories for the newest lines of chemistry sets.

The Future of the Chemistry Set

Atomic Energy Laboratory

The future of the chemistry set itself is rather uncertain. You can find numerous science experiment sets available for purchase online, but most are nothing like the sets produced by Gilbert and his competitors a century ago. Many of them do not even contain chemicals. There is also modern technology to consider. In an age when people can readily share information in seconds online and ingredients are easy to purchase for specific experiments, many people are shying away from buying large chemistry sets for their kids. Yet, there are still some families with members who get thrills from performing home science experiments, so only time will tell if some form of the chemistry set will endure for future generations of children.

The Enduring Legacy of A.C. Gilbert

Regardless of the uncertain future of the chemistry set, the enduring legacy of A.C. Gilbert himself is indisputable. From his erector sets to his microscopes and early robots, he has left an enduring mark on the toy-making industry and American history, in general. Proceed with caution.