Publication Date

September 28, 2023

Perspectives Section

Everything Has a History



Parker Brothers, manufacturer of games such as Sorry!, Clue, and Monopoly, made an unusual foray outside of board games when it released the Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit in 1971. 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.

A faded box cover for a Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit. A red title bar gives the product’s name next to the face of a man in a cowboy hat. Three vertical images show children engaged in using the kit with the titles “Test the Air,” “Test the Water,” and “Pollution?”

Courtesy Science History Institute/CC BY 4.0

The Johnny Horizon Environmental Test Kit was not the only effort by toy makers to monetize the ecological moment after the first Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970. The kit debuted at the influential annual Toy Fair trade show alongside toys such as see-through greenhouses kids could use to observe plant growth and ecology stamp books. As the New York Times reported about that year’s toys, “Ecology is in.”

These toys reflected the broad impact of the environmental movement, which spurred interest in ecology and science for a generation of American students. Many demanded environmental education in their classrooms. Riding this wave of interest, the Bureau of Land Management created an ad campaign around its mascot Johnny Horizon, a rugged outdoorsman figure. Horizon gained widespread popularity during the 1970s, and Burl Ives—perhaps best known today as the singer of the holiday earworm “A Holly Jolly Christmas”—became a spokesman for the ad campaign. Even Snoopy signed up. Across the nation, children took the Johnny Horizon Pledge, promising to help keep their local landscapes clean by picking up litter.

Advertising for the test kit directly targeted children interested in science and concerned about the environment. One ad featured a child in a lab coat under the text “for the scientist in you.” Unlike previous chemistry play sets, the Johnny Horizon set did not focus on learning chemistry by mixing dangerous chemicals. Instead, the kit pitched itself as a way that “you and your family will know more and be able to do more about our environmental problems.”

The kit gave children a way to seize a modicum of agency in the face of overwhelming challenges, allowing them to use scientific tools to understand the state of their own neighborhoods. Though simplified, the science behind the kit was real. Writer Gareth Branwyn recalls growing up near chemical plants and becoming concerned by the malodorous air. When he decided to test the environment for a science project, “it felt really empowering to get this kit, trudge off into the woods, and collect scientific data that actually painted a picture of what was happening in the surrounding area.” Several of Branwyn’s test results showed illegal levels of pollution.

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.

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