The Man Who Changed How Boys
and Toys Were Made
by Bruce Watson
October 24, 2002
Comments About The Man Who Changed How Boys
and Toys Were Made
'Solves the boy problem!' Erector sets constructed a new industry - and new marketing
You won't know the name A.C. Gilbert, unless you were a boy growing up in the first half of the 20th century. Olympic athlete, Yale-educated doctor, magician, toy magnate, radio pioneer, and perpetual boy, Mr. Gilbert channeled his irrepressible energy into the invention of a new toy he called the Erector set. The kits - sturdy wooden boxes filled with model-size girders, nuts, bolts, motors, and other construction pieces - instantly took American boys by storm.
For boys (and some girls) growing up between 1913 and the 1950s, toys made by the A.C. Gilbert Co. were an integral part of childhood. Generations of scientists, engineers, and architects traced their careers back to their first Erector sets.
"The Man Who Changed How Toys and Boys Were Made," by Bruce Watson, is a thoroughly delightful portrait of Alfred Carleton Gilbert (1884-1962), a fascinating and largely forgotten figure. The book is an equally engrossing snapshot of the times in which Gilbert lived and made his mark. It was an age, the author notes, that was "almost devoid of irony or cynicism. Concepts such as honor, duty, and success were touted in public on a daily basis, and ... few dared snigger or scoff." It was also a time when heavy industry was changing the face of America. While riding on a train from New Haven to Manhattan in 1911, Gilbert watched workmen erecting enormous steel lattices, topped by braces strung with high-tension wires. Fascinated by the efficiency, handiwork, and sheer muscular heft of the girders, Gilbert saw the potential for boys to be able to build skyscrapers, derricks, cranes, and bridges in miniature right in their own living rooms.
Over the next 50 years, the A.C. Gilbert Co. sold more than 30 million Erector sets, available in a variety of sizes, as well as kits that allowed kids to dabble in every facet of science and industry from plumbing to atomic energy. In the process, Gilbert revolutionized the toy industry. While Erector was not the first construction toy on the market, Gilbert was the first to take toys seriously, the first to understand the mentality of boys, and the first to market his wares directly to them.
Most important, Gilbert made himself part of the advertising package, speaking directly to his audience ("Hello, Boys! Now for fun!") in newspaper advertisements, a promotional magazine, and a number of other innovative marketing vehicles. Boys developed ties to Erector and its inventor that bordered on the filial. At one point, Gilbert was receiving nearly 1,000 letters a day from boys across the country, some of whom signed their missives, "Your Loving Son." As the decades passed, the world, including boyhood, changed dramatically. Edison, the self-made, practical inventor, gave way to Einstein, the genius who created theories, not things. The movie "Frankenstein" strengthened the image of the scientist as an obsessive oddball whose work can wreck havoc. "The Bomb" obliterated whatever remained of the public's love affair with science. By the 1950s, the "wide-awake" Gilbert Boy became the archetypal nerd.
As Watson puts it, "Older boys no longer dreamed of becoming men; they dreamed of becoming cool." Hopelessly out of step with the times, Erector sets declined until the Gilbert Co. finally closed down in 1967. The company's assets were sold off, including the familiar trademark, which is now owned by the Nikko Corp., a Japanese manufacturer of remote-control cars and airplanes. Watson, primarily a writer for popular magazines, has honed a lively style and an amusing way with words. He brings Gilbert's story and the history of the toy business in America to life in this slim, entertaining book. He also shares some worthwhile thoughts on the current state of toys in America, now that information rather than industry is the trademark of the age and the most popular toys traffic, not in a mock-up of the grownup world, but in pure fantasy.
Christian Science Monitor
Kansas City, Mo.
The man who invented Erector sets might seem like an unlikely subject for a biography, but Watson (London Bridge: 2000 Years of a River Crossing) turns the story of A.C. Gilbert's life and most popular invention into a lively, entertaining read. Erector helped boys create their own miniature worlds; it taught them to use their ingenuity to play at being men. Adults who'd been "Gilbert boys" in their youth used Erector to create such things as the first heart-bypass machine with sets they'd hung onto from their childhoods. Gilbert himself was a "wide-awake" all American boy in the 1880s and '90s who showed his friends how to have a good time. As head of the Mysto manufacturing company and as publisher of Erector Tips (a magazine that not only contained new models to build and contests to win but also tips on life and growing up), he continued to spread his knowledge to boys all over. Gilbert saw opportunities where no one else did, banding U.S. toy manufacturers together and turning WWI into an opportunity to make American-made toys foremost in American homes. A true Renaissance man, he was an accomplished magician, a "4-minute man" promoting patriotism at movie houses and a pole vault champion. In 1918, he saved Christmas from the Council of National Defense, which had decided that parents should be forced to buy Liberty Bonds rather than toys for their children. Watson's spirited style adds a sense of nostalgic whimsy to Gilbert's intense life and makes this quirky book, just like Gilbert's toys, educational and good clean fun. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Journalist Watson offers up the life and times of Alfred C. Gilbert (1884-1961) with an aura of homage one might expect from anyone who ever, in childhood, confronted the subject's chief contribution to American culture: the Erector Set. The biographer's job is made all the more rewarding by Gilbert's multifaceted dynamism: with what would be a toy bulldog's body by today's standards of male physique, he rode a vaulting pole to world records and an Olympic Gold Medal. Leaving Yale's medical school with an M.D., he promptly abandoned medicine for magic, founding Mysto Manufacturing in New Haven, Connecticut, to hawk a series of parlor tricks that he himself had excelled at as a kid. Even then, A.C., as he became universally known by associates and freckle-faced customers alike, had his magnum opus in mind: by stamping a simple corrugation on a toy-scale "girder" that resembled those used in heavy construction for bridges and skyscrapers all over America, Gilbert produced a stiffer, superior component. Yet the rest may well not have been history, the author points out, if Gilbert hadn't "made himself part of the package." Such deceptively simple-minded slogans as "Hey Boys, Make Lots of Toys," delivered under Gilbert's likeness both in Erector ads and on packaging, Watson observes, were the product of a genius who essentially practiced boyhood for his entire adult life in order to fully plumb the market. Chemistry sets, microscopes, and even-after WWII-a nuclear science kit that included a small sample of radioactive material followed, but none challenged the ever-widening line (at one point including a kit that weighed over 100 pounds and cost $150) of Erector Sets. Faced with competitive"youth culture" marketing that screamed instant gratification in the mid-'50s, Gilbert finally grew up and left the company. Artfully nostalgic account of a phenomenon that survived two world wars but not Elvis.