It’s Alive!

A 1960s toy that revealed a hidden world.

By Elisabeth Berry Drago | April 28, 2016
Skil Craft Biology Lab 1960

The Skil Craft Biology Lab, sold around 1960.

Science History Institute

In their heyday many manufacturers of chemistry sets and science toys—including A. C. Gilbert, Lionel Porter, and Skil Craft—also produced microscope sets, electrical and “hydrodynamic” engineering kits, and other toys that encouraged children to explore the wonders of the natural world. Following the technological and scientific advances (and devastations) of World War II, science toys and science clubs gained new importance for many parents and educators, who saw a need for greater science literacy in industry, business, and policy making. Many adults also hoped that science toys would inspire the next generation to become inventors and innovators whose work might bring new solutions to old problems. Toymakers fanned these dreams with claims that science kits could help kids stay ahead in school—though plenty of children simply liked their potential for wild experiments.

This Skil Craft Biology Lab, sold around 1960, packed a toolkit designed for investigating real plants and animals. Forget just looking at diagrams: with this set kids could examine the structures and secrets of living things down to the leaf or hair. See the scalpels and tweezers still gleaming in their cardboard inserts? Kids with strong stomachs used them to dissect real specimens: a vacuum-preserved fish, frog, and crayfish were included with every set, and new specimens (clams, earthworms, even starfish) could be bought by mail order. An instruction book taught the reader how to make and view microscope slides from small samples of tissue.

The microscope—with its “high power eyepiece”—opened a whole new frontier for its young and curious owner. It rendered familiar sights mysterious: leaves plucked from the yard, with their curious structures of epidermis and stomata, or fish scales in all their crystalline beauty. Many scientists and researchers, but also artists and poets, have claimed that a special kind of inspiration comes from looking down those lenses. Can you imagine it?

Charles E. Connor can. A biologist and neuroscientist, Connor recalls his childhood play with microscopes. He collected butterflies and examined preserved specimens bought by mail. “I always thought I would be a scientist, even in elementary school,” he says in his CHF oral history. One of his most treasured biology toys was a see-through model of an amphibian, the Visible Frog Anatomy Kit. This gift was, he says, “a big deal.”

This Skil Craft Biology Lab, along with many other science toys, will be on view through August 2016 as part of our current exhibition, Science at Play.