Baking Powder Submarines

Baking powder submarine, still wrapped in cellophane

In the tradition of coonskin caps, today’s memory is one that was before my time. However, due to popular demand, I present it anyhow.

They were called baking powder submarines, as well as baking soda submarines. However, loading baking soda into one of them would cause it to sink straight to the bottom and await rescue. No, it was baking POWDER that the minuscule watercraft required for propulsion.

Baking powder, you see, is a combination of sodium bicarbonate (a base, chemistry fans) and cream of tartar (an acid). You kids who had a Gilbert chemistry set (which will be my next article) know what happens when you mix an acid and a base. Fizz!

The fizz causes the submarine to rise. As the bubbles beak at the surface, the heavier-than-water sub sinks back down, only to have more bubbles form on the bottom, causing the cool process to repeat.

Freshly arrived from Kellog’s, baking powder subs and a diver!

The first baking powder submarines were introduced in 1954. The nation was buzzing about the first nuclear powered submarine, the timing was immaculate. They cost a quarter, and required a cereal boxtop to be mailed in. Within a couple of weeks, the miniaturized vessel would arrive in the mail, to the relief of the child who had been checking the mail box for thirteen days.

In short order, a sink would be filled with water, mom’s baking powder would be “borrowed,” and the submarine would begin one of hundreds of voyages.

Inevitably, the baking powder would run out and baking SODA would be tried. Within minutes, mom would be notified of the need for more Clabber Girl.

The subs were a huge sensation. The sub’s manufacturer, Hirsch labs, went from a cosmetics maker to a toy maker. They created a smaller version intended to be a giveaway, cut a deal with Kellog’s, and started cranking them out by the millions. Other Hirsch creations would include diving frogmen, magic moon gardens, and more neat toys.

Kellog’s sold several tons of cereal thank to those little submarines. Eventually, models were sold that ran on tablets, actually compressed baking powder. The invention of the diving sub by Hirsch resulted in nice profits for themselves, Kellog’s, and Clabber Girl. It also resulted in cherished memories for the founding members of the Baby Boomer generation.

For a much more detailed account of baking powder submarines, check out this excellent site.

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