If you like history, you should check out the website for “Perspectives on History,” the newsmagazine of the American Historical Association. More specifically, I’ve been enjoying a recurring column called “Everything Has a History,” which provides the histories of everything from 20-sided die to elevator sounds to Big Mouth Billy Bass, and much more.
The latest entry, written by Sherri Sheu, the Haas Curatorial Fellow at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia and an at-large member of the AHA Council, is about the “Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit,” a toy for budding environmental scientists manufactured by Parker Brothers in 1971 that capitalized on the growing interest in environmentalism and ecology that was ignited after the first Earth Day in April, 1970.
Sheu describes the kit:
The kit contained 10 experiments for children to test the air and water in their neighborhoods. Youngsters could take samples from their local waterways and culture a petri dish to test for fecal coliform contamination or dip pH strips to test acidity and alkalinity. They could test smoke density in the air or use sticky paper to find and count air particles. In the spirit of the scientific method, the experiments could be repeated multiple times, with refill kits also available for purchase.
“Johnny Horizon”—which Sheu describes as a “rugged outdoorsman figure”—was a mascot created in 1968 by the Bureau of Land Management to promote environmental education through a series of anti-litter public service announcements through the 1970s. Sheu also explains that while the kits taught real science and provided some sense of agency to youth seeking to address environmental issues in their neighborhoods, the kits focused on individual responsibility—don’t litter, avoid pesticides, etc.—and didn’t address much in terms of more structural solutions, which, of course, is an ongoing problem:
Yet, for all its testing capabilities, the kit could not provide many solutions. In a list of suggestions, the handbook recommended reading more books on the environment and instructed users to refrain from littering, avoid pesticides, reduce plastic use, and travel by mass transit. Only in the last recommendation did the booklet suggest reporting test results to the EPA or local authorities. The kit offered a way to observe the environment, not to solve environmental problems or engage in political action.
It is perhaps too much to ask for a solution to wide-scale environmental pollution from a toy. However, the limitations of the Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit illuminate a long-standing tension of the environmental age: What can everyday citizens do in light of the need for global systemic change? A half century after the kit’s appearance, many of us still feel that we are trying to confront climate change with only children’s toys.