The Man Who Changed How Boys
and Toys Were Made
by Bruce Watson
October 24, 2002
A.C. Gilbert made more than toys. He manufactured future engineers and scientists. For 50 years, toys made by the A.C. Gilbert Company stood above the crowd of cheap doo-dads and gewgaws peddled to make a quick buck. Gilbert himself -- athlete, magician, toy tycoon, radio pioneer -- was an assemblage of diverse parts. An American original, he was part Horatio Alger, part Jim Thorpe, and part P.T. Barnum. Conservative and strait-laced, he nonetheless embraced the most progressive views on education. In an age when learning was by rote, Gilbert encouraged children to make up their education as they went along. He knew kids learned this way because he had been a boy in the truest sense, in our truest, bluest era.
Growing up in the 1890s, Gilbert came of age in a time almost devoid of irony or cynicism. Concepts such as honor, duty, and success were touted in public on a daily basis and except for Mark Twain, few dared snigger or scoff. Terms like "plucky" and "alert" were applied to boys like Gilbert without the slightest sarcasm. Pride was still pride and heroes were not yet doomed to be toppled from their pedestals by scandal or skeletons in closets. Stiffened by such moral fiber, Gilbert drove himself to become a mass of muscle in a slight frame. From 1900 to 1910 he was America's greatest amateur athlete. A national champion collegiate wrestler, he also won sprints and hurdles, quarterbacked a college football team, and set world records in the pole vault. But although he had devoutly followed the Protestant work ethic, Gilbert then thumbed his nose at it.
In 1909, shelving his M.D. from Yale University, he chose to practice boyhood instead of medicine. While others went to work, he made a living by making and selling magic tricks. Two years later, he invented the Erector set. It was an instant success, allowing him to remain a boy in a businessman's body. Throughout his life, he had a childlike delight in fun tempered by a business sense that made him a millionaire back when that term was still gilded. While other toy makers were content to surrender their toys to the market's whims, Gilbert created the modern toy industry by selling fun all year round. He promoted his products with a dizzying array of contests, monthly magazines, and engineering "institutes." In sprawling full-page magazine adds filled with a homespun paternalism, Gilbert spoke to boys as if they were his friends. And they wrote back, sending him some 300,000 letters a year, many of them signed "your loving son."
Between 1913 and 1966, Gilbert sold more than 30 million Erector sets, earning its nickname as "the world's greatest toy." But it's hard to consider it a toy. During the late 1920s, the top-of-the-line Erector set, packed in a wooden box two-and-a-half feet square and eight inches thick, weighed 150 pounds, and made hundreds of models including a five-foot long zeppelin and a four-foot Hudson steam locomotive. The set sold for $70, a month's wages during the Depression. But along with Erector Sets, A.C. Gilbert made science in a box. He manufactured weather kits, astronomy kits, chemistry sets, microscopes, telescopes, and mini-labs that let kids play with physics, hydraulic engineering, mineralogy, sound, light, telegraphy, civil engineering, magnetism, even atomic energy. Gilbert's toys allowed boys (and any girls who could get their brothers' permission) to apprentice at an early age, trying on the world of science and industry to see how it fit. But above all, A.C. Gilbert made memories.
Excerpt from "The Man Who Changed HOw Boys and Toys Were Made" by Bruce Watson (Viking-Penguin) pp. 4-5.