childhood, Culture, Science

Darwin’s Warning and The Good Old Days

We have come a long way in avoiding the classic dangers so present in our youth. But sometimes I still wonder how we got here. We can laugh today at the hapless winners of Darwin Awards, but that is only because the past three generations have regulated us to observe the principles of Charles Darwin.

I recently toyed with the idea of taking a stab at etching, for the purpose of creating an art print. Etching is the ancient science of scratching an image onto a wax-covered copper plate, and dipping the plate in acid. The plate gets engraved in the process, and when it is inked, the plate is pressed onto a paper which receives the image.

To learn more, I could have Googled the subject, but instead, I turned to the Popular Mechanics Do-It-Yourself Encyclopedia, published by J.J. Little and Ives in 1955.

Popular mechanics Do It Yourself–our small town bible.

In my hometown of Delhi, a small but once influential tobacco-growing community in southern Ontario, the PM DIY Encyclopedia was a bible. Actually, it was a collection of 13 illustrated bibles bound in red and black leatherette, handsomely gold-embossed, and proudly displayed in its own pre-engineered wooden shelf by my father, and countless other DIY-ers at the time. You didn’t have to go far to learn about plumbing, carpentry, automotive repair, sewing machines and gardening when you had these books sitting right there beside the record player.

So I was pleased on picking up volume 4 “EL to GA” and finding the lowdown on etching on page–wait, there are no page numbers–on the pages between “enlargers” and “extension cords”.

Etching– the art and science of engraving metal.

Excited now, I read on. The thoughtfully drawn black and white illustrations showed an enthusiastic, friendly looking craftsman decanting fluid into a tray. Reading more closely, I saw that for etching glass, and/or metal, the active ingredients were tallow, hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, potassium chlorate, asphaltum paint, glacial acetic acid, sodium fluoride…and washed up with gasoline, before pouring down the floor drain with plenty of water.


I decided some time spent on Youtube was a better idea, and put that off for later.

But thumbing through the book “EL to GA” I was stunned to learn about all the other DIY projects we pursued back in 1955.

“Electroplating With Gold and Silver” was particularly instructive.

Electroplating..all that glitters!

A well-drawn and focused craftsman is mixing up a solution of sodium cyanide and caustic soda in a pitcher of water. When dissolved, the reader is advised that rubber gloves and ventilation are a must, to avoid deadly hydrocyanic acid fumes. To this concoction one adds some copper cyanide. The book says to hook the brew up to a six-volt battery, and dunk the target object in for an hour or so, and voila: a silver-plated stapler, shoe horn, ticket puncher, egg beater–whatever suits your fancy.

I felt like I had my hands on a secret, forbidden book– techno-porn is the only way I could describe it.

Now tantalized by this collection of ideas, I thumbed to “Electrical Rotating Contact”.

The electric rotating gizmo..for all ages!

This gem only took half a page, even with the helpful drawing. Mission: to create a spinning brush-style power source that would rotate as some electrical engine drove around it.

The picture tells a thousand words easily. A pole is positioned in the middle of a backyard wading pool. At its top is the ingenious electrical rotating contact which is attached to an electrical cord plugged into the engine of a child’s model boat, floating in the pool. The pole is cleverly hooked up to an extension cord plugged into the house, drawing from the 120-volt line. Two excited kids stand by the pool, gleefully cheering as their model racing boat  circuits the water, leaving them smiling in its frothy wake. One can only imagine the hours of joyful entertainment as the craft orbits the sparky contraption.

The book is filled with helpful suggestions for mixing your own weed killer, building a forge, a blast furnace, and simply maintaining your home coal furnace.

Thinking back, we were, if not fearless, certainly adventurous. In our house, we were frequent users of gunpowder. Simple chemistry would be put to use with benign, parental encouragement, and a helpful smiling assist from the local druggist.

Powering up the acid solution.

A typical exchange was,
“Hi Mr. Taylor! Can I have half a pound of potassium nitrate and another half of sulphur please?”
With a wry smile, his response, “Heheh, okay, and don’t blow yourselves up.”
When I consider that discussion, and our brazen, guileless approach, I should have added, “and a dozen prophylactics too, please.” It would have thrown him off course, I am sure.

Somehow, the ingredients were mixed with a third, which I will omit for current security concerns, and we would enthrall and impress our friends with carefully rolled fireworks, stink bombs and countless rocket duds that never made it off the launch pad.

Through all of these semi-innocent shenanigans, we never paid a serious price, but I am sure that there were others not so lucky. In any event, today, 65 years later, these escapades are pretty much eliminated from the experience of young kids, and I am thankful.

Back then it was just part of growing up. But Darwin was right.

Still, I have to see Volume 3, CO to EL.  I can only imagine.


Thanks for reading!  I hope you are thankful for all the precautions and safeguards we now have in place today. Still, you have to wonder how we made it this far.



8 thoughts on “Darwin’s Warning and The Good Old Days

  1. Brian Mawhiney says:

    It’s a good thing we didn’t get together to blow things up. A little diesel fuel, a little gasoline, a small amount of aeroprills and some binder twine . Soak the binder twine in the gas to make a wick. The rest you can imagine. I never used more than a shot glass of the nitrogen. The more the bigger the bang. When I was I was in post secondary I worked at the research station. One summer I was tasked with eliminating the groundhogs that were causing a lot of damage to the small experimental plots. The ground hogs would just nip the plants off. I used my recipe in greater quantities. I only blew over one pine tree . Whoops. BUT I managed to reduce the population to a manageable number. Ahh the good old days.


    • We gravitate towards explosives; it’s in our nature. We looked forward to Victoria Day weekend to congregate around the irrigation pipes down by Heaths. They were exceptional cannons.


  2. Douglas Burns Foster says:

    Your post gave me a chuckle as always, Phil. I worked at Taylors Drug store, stocking shelves, doing inventory, sweeping floors, processing incoming stock and sweeping floors, and sweeping or shoveling the front sidewalk cranking the exterior awning up or down to protect the window displays from sun/overheating.

    There was an assortment of caustic substances in the drug store, including Warfarin, Strychnine, Arsenic, and Muriatic Acid.

    But it was the prophylactics that brings a slightly naughty smile to my face. My father trained me, when I was about 9 years old, what to do if a customer asked for prophylactics. I was trained to handle the request professionally with little muss or fuss. And definitely, no smirks. Dad trained all of the staff, male and female to handle these requests, that usually came in more vernacular terms than “prophylactics”.

    I got a few more of these requests as a male, even though I probably young enough to not know what do do with prophylactic. Dad advised me to ask if they had a brand in mind, and whether the customer wanted a package of 3, 6 or 12 as they were sold in those days before COSTCO. These items were kept safely out of sight of matronly customers or children both behind the pharmacy counter and under the front counter.

    One of my early customers for this item was a high school teacher where I attended school. It was noon hour, and Dad had walked home for lunch at 11:30 and I happened to be the only staffer in the front store. This gentleman was married to another school teacher and I was in both of their classes. This gentleman looked around for anyone else to wait on him, but Harold Taylor was out back in the pharmacy, nowhere to be seem.

    The gentleman looked a bit flushed, but walked quickly toward me, and asked for prophylactics. I didn’t miss a beat, asked for the quantity and brand, and proceeded to discreetly put the item in a plain bag and ring in the sale on the somewhat noisy cash register. I kept a stoic face, but had to admit that my mind devilishly contemplated my teachers – sneaking home for a “nooner” from the high school.

    The other customer that I remember was a curly headed young chap who worked at a hardware store across the street. The store was busy when entered the store and I was stocking shelves with baby formula, which was big seller in those days. He quietly asked a female clerk for “French Safes”, and the young lady, promptly asked what brand and ….. small, medium or large? The poor guy turned beet red and quickly walked out the door and crossed the street back to the hardware store.

    Later, that afternoon, I went out to crank down the awning to protect displays from the direct sunlight. The same young fellow came dashing across the road and asked me in a somewhat urgent voice if we sold “French safes”. I responded as my Dad had trained me, but the fellow did not want to go back into the store and asked me to bring them outside in a bag – offering me a $5.00 bill. I discreetly did as he asked, returning with his purchase in a plain paper bag along with his change. He told me to keep the change, but I refused, also in line with my father’s instructions.

    Now these items are available on shelves everywhere and in quantities unheard of in those days.


    • Hi Doug! You had a peach of a job. Today of course, thanks to the liberalization of all things sexual, and in plain sight, we no longer see the blush you refer to. But I do remember at the time that prophylactic seemed to be the term used, which was elevated to frenchie. It also recalls the conversation between today’s father and son: “Son, when I was a young boy, my father told me all about condoms while we sat out on the veranda.” The boy responded, “Gee Dad, what’s a veranda?”


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