The Vault

Pink Science, ’50s-Style

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Here’s a fun game: trawl Amazon looking for offensively girly science kits designed for young ladies. Marvel at Scientific Explorer Spa Science, Wild Science Perfect Perfume Laboratory, or Scientific Explorer Heavenly Hair. Even the science kit appears to have fallen prey to the merciless tyranny of princess culture.

At first glance, this pink microscope set, which was marketed by New Haven-based toymaker A.C. Gilbert Company in 1958, might seem to be a grandmother to these contemporary kits.

The set, which is preserved in the Chemical Heritage Foundation’s collection of chemistry sets, is a product of post-WWII anxiety over the nation’s lack of what was called “scientific manpower.” Having seen what a difference science made in the war (the bomb, radar, penicillin), and realizing that the amount of work to be done in labs and industrial R&D was limitless, Americans worried that insufficient numbers of young people wanted to be scientists. Some called for young women to be included in recruitment efforts. Women had been largely shut out of scientific careers up until that point. But they had a major point in their favor: They were undraftable. If girls got the right training, future wartime labs could be staffed by women, who were naturally bound to the homefront.  

But all science jobs are not alike, and women didn’t get the plum ones. Historian John Rudolph, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has written about postwar efforts to upgrade the science curriculum. He found that girls were recruited to science careers after the war, but only for jobs that were to the side of the main show: lab technician, science teacher.

But The Lab Technician set wasn’t the mid-century equivalent of a perfume kit (those girly sets do have ancestors; rival toymaker Chemcraft manufactured “SachetCraft” sets for girls in the 1920s). The Lab Technician’s manual was devoid of patronizing talk; in fact, it was the same manual that was included in the boys’ microscope kits, with a pink cover slapped on front. But the name of the kit did suggest to girls that their role in the lab was as support staff, not principal investigators. This was a far cry from the standard sell used to pitch chemistry sets to boys, who were told that their discoveries could make a patriotic contribution, bring intellectual satisfaction, and even win them fame and fortune.

Cover of A.C. Gilbert Lab Technician set

Courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections. Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

Interior of A.C. Gilbert Lab Technician set, 1958

Courtesy of Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections. Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

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