January 24: A. C. Gilbert, the Greatest Generation’s Toymaker

Today in 1961, A. C. “A. Co.” Gilbert, the man whose hands-on-learning toys were the foundation of the American toy industry during the first half of the twentieth century, died at age 76.

A gifted athlete and pole-vaulting gold medalist at the 1908 London Olympics, Gilbert was also a talented illusionist who financed his Yale medical school education performing as a magician. Choosing magic over medicine, the 24-year-old Gilbert and a partner formed the Mysto Manufacturing Company in New Haven in 1909 to sell  tricks to would-be prestidigitators. While the company enjoyed magical sales, Gilbert’s great inspiration came while riding the New York and New Haven Railroad in 1911. Fascinated by the girders being used to string the electric lines that would convert the run to New York from steam to electric power, Gilbert conceived of creating a toy that would let boys use girder-like steel pieces to construct an array of models – battleships, bridges, dirigibles, skyscrapers – by hand. The Erector set was born, and with it, the concept of the educational toy that would help the American toy industry achieve mass-market footing.

In 1913, Gilbert broke away from his partner, renamed his firm the A. C. Gilbert

gilbert-the-manager
A. C. Gilbert (Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop)

Company, and began manufacturing and marketing the Erector set nationally. Gilbert was the first person to advertise toys in national magazines, and his approach was to promote the sets to boys and girls and their parents as hands-on, fun projects that simultaneously taught skills and character. The character-building aspect of Erector set project construction came through the difficulty of building the models. Not only did the nuts and bolts construction take significant manual dexterity, the would-be builder had to be particularly observant of the limited-instruction illustrations (can you say Ikea?). Gilbert also marketed primarily to boys directly, beginning brochures with “Hello Boys,” and inviting them to write him personally, making sure each one who did received an A. C. Gilbert response.

In 1918, Gilbert became “The Man Who Saved Christmas,” after he testified before Congress to get them to lift a moratorium they had imposed on manufacturing toys during wartime (World War I). His argument that toys were valuable learning tools and necessary for assuring the perpetuity of American inventiveness proved persuasive.

The Erector set’s success was industry-changing, and it was soon joined by an array of other Gilbert hands-on learning toys such as chemistry sets, microscope sets, and in the early 1950s, the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Laboratory, complete with radioactive materials and an ersatz Geiger counter. In 1938, he also purchased the American Flyer train company, adapting the cars to add more realism to the product line.

A. C. Gilbert retired from his company in 1954, turning control over to his son Al. By then, the dawn of the television age was beginning to bring changes that would make the Erector set and other Gilbert toys artifacts of another time. But for boys and girls  who grew up in the first half of the twentieth century, and whose legacy is that they are now known as the Greatest Generation, A. C. Gilbert’s hands-on toys marked a rite-of-passage between children’s play and grown-up skills.

Further Reading:

About A. C. Gilbert,” Gilbert House Children’s Museum

A. C. Gilbert, Scientific Toymaker,” Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop