Cabinets for the Curious

Curious about the origins of the chemistry set? Then read on.

Neatness, sound opinions, and a strong moral character were virtues instilled by chemistry, at least in the 19th century.

In 1847 John Joseph Griffin released the 9th edition of his book Chemical Recreations: A Popular Compendium of Experimental Chemistry, For the Use of Beginners and made a passionate argument for why chemistry should be a valued branch of a liberal education. “There are no bounds to the researches of Chemistry,” Griffin wrote. “Indeed, so infinitely varied are its objects, that it is an everlasting source of occupation and amusement.” Through chemical experiments students learned essential life lessons.

John J. Griffin and Sons, a supplier of chemical apparatus and instrumentation, sold a variety of portable chemistry cabinets through its catalog. These gave budding chemists the tools they needed to perform experiments outlined in Chemical Recreations. A basic introductory set in 1866 cost 16 shillings, a price that put the set out of the reach of most English families. But well-heeled experimenters could purchase additional apparatus and chemicals from the Griffin catalog. Griffin also designed cabinets for use in the classroom and for examinations in practical chemistry.

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Canisters of chemicals from a 19th-century chemical cabinet sold by John Griffin.

Science History Institute/Gregory Tobias

The Griffin Portable Chemical Cabinet contained the essentials, including a mortar and pestle, glass pipettes and stirrers, a glass spirit lamp, a retort stand, a blowpipe, test tubes, and funnels. It also provided at least 33 chemical preparations, including sulfur, copper nitrate, manganese, silver nitrate, and granulated zinc. With these tools students could learn about the properties of heat, how to prepare and collect gases, and how to test for metals in salts (which required the use of a blowpipe).

Experiments and instructions encouraged wonder but were also serious-minded. The Griffin kit, unlike many of its 20th-century descendants, did not overemphasize explosions or other spectacles. Griffin stressed the importance of caution when conducting experiments, warning students of lurking hazards. When working with chlorine gas, for example, he gave special instructions: “Particular care must be taken not to breathe the chlorine gas, nor the vapours produced in the experiments. . . . It would be highly dangerous to make these experiments in a small unventilated apartment.”

All the apparatus and chemicals packed neatly into the mahogany box, perhaps reinforcing Griffin’s idea of chemistry encouraging habits of neatness and order. Griffin’s and other early cabinets provided the foundation for the toylike chemistry sets of the 1950s and 1960s. CHF recently acquired an early Griffin Portable Chemical Cabinet made around 1850; the set includes much of the original apparatus and chemical preparations, all in wooden containers. It is now the earliest example of a chemistry set in CHF’s collections.