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AC Gilbert: The Man Who Saved ChristmasA.C. Gilbert: The Man Who Saved Christmas

There were many casualties during the Great War, both in lives lost on the battlefield and in sacrifices made on the home front. Civilians grew accustomed to doing without the finer things in life, but in 1918 the U.S. government asked for too much: they attempted to requisition Christmas. If not for the efforts of American inventor Alfred Carlton Gilbert, every child’s favorite holiday may have been lost.

Gilbert was born in Salem, Oregon in 1884. Growing up, he developed a keen interest in sports. He excelled at track and while a student at Tualatin Academy in Salem he set world records for pull-ups and the running long jump. He continued his athletic career in college, first at Pacific University and later at Yale University where he earned a medical degree. In 1908, he competed in the pole vault at the London Olympics and set a new world record of 12 feet 3 inches using a spikeless pole of his own invention.

Gilbert’s other great talent was in magic. During college, he would perform magic tricks he had learned as a child to help pay for tuition, often making as much as one hundred dollars a night. He developed the first boxed set of magic tricks and began selling them for five dollars a piece. Soon Gilbert decided to direct his creative energy toward a career in magic instead of one in medicine or athletics. He opened his first business in New Haven, Connecticut where he and his partner formed the Mysto-Manufacturing Company.

Early in 1911, Gilbert conceived a new toy, the Erector Set. The idea came to him while riding the train as he watched steel girders raising new power lines. One night, he and his wife cut out cardboard girders and worked with them until they fit together. A machinist converted the pieces into metal. His partner in Mysto-Manufacturing was not interested in this new idea, so Gilbert marketed it himself at the Toy Fair of 1913, changed the name of the company to the A.C. Gilbert Company in 1916, and won the Gold Medal for his Erector Set invention at the Panama Pacific Exhibition in 1916. He sold 30 million Erector sets over the following two decades. At his Westville, Connecticut factory, the progressive Gilbert offered his employees medical benefits and a playroom and daycare area for their children.

In April of 1917, the United States officially entered World War I. Gilbert was asked by the Council of National Defense to convert his toy factory to make weapons and munitions to help with the war effort. Feeling he had little choice, the factory was converted. Toward the end of 1918, the Council considered a ban on all toy production in an effort to utilize toy and other manufacturing facilities in the production of much needed supplies and armaments in support of the war. The Council hoped the ban would encourage people to buy more war bonds with the money they would have otherwise spent on Christmas toys. The Committee on Public Information created a campaign to essentially cancel Christmas—encouraging parents to “buy bonds, not toys.”

The Toy Manufacturers of the U.S.A. appointed A.C. Gilbert to go to Washington and convince the Council to abort their planned ban. Alfred accepted the appointment, believing that toys were too important to give up— both for educating children and for overall morale. Knowing that he would have only a few minutes to convince the Council, he brought some of his toys along to help make his point. After passing the toys around, the Council members found themselves on the floor playing with them. The meeting ran past the scheduled few minutes to three hours. Alfred’s arguments succeeded in changing the minds of the committee regarding the ban, thus earning himself the nickname “The Man Who Saved Christmas.” The toy industry continued to produce toys through Christmas 1918.

By the end of World War I, A.C. Gilbert’s toy production broadened beyond erector and magic sets to include kits on glass blowing, magnets, electrical sets, chemistry sets, soldering sets, telescopes, microscopes and eventually “atomic energy kits,” complete with real radioactive material and working Geiger counters. In the late 1930’s the A.C. Gilbert Company purchased the American Flyer line of model trains and continued production until 1967.

A.C. Gilbert continued to make toys until he died in 1961. He was credited with over 150 patents incorporated within his array of educational toys, but he will always be remembered best as “The Man Who Saved Christmas” during the Great War.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Gilbert, A.C., and Marshall McClintock. The Man Who Lives In Paradise. New York, Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1954.

Watson, Bruce, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made. New York, Penguin, 2002.

Leighton, Kenneth William. Gilbert Civil Engineering for Boys: Surveying. Westville, A.C. Gilbert Company, 1920.

IN THE COLLECTION

Prints:

#330 A.C. Gilbert Chemistry Set Advertisement

#337 A.C. Gilbert Erector Set Advertisement

Books:

Gilbert, A.C., and Marshall McClintock. The Man Who Lives In Paradise. New York, Rinehart and Company, Inc., 1954.

Watson, Bruce, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made. New York, Penguin, 2002.

Leighton, Kenneth William. Gilbert Civil Engineering for Boys: Surveying. Westville, A.C. Gilbert Company, 1920.

DVDs:

The Man Who Saved Christmas (2008), Echo Bridge Home Entertainment and Toy Factory Productions, Inc.

Artifacts:

A.C. Gilbert Puzzle Parties (6 in case)

A.C. Gilbert Individual Ball and Gear Game

A.C. Gilbert Puzzle Party with twisted metal puzzle

A.C. Gilbert Number 1 Erector Set

A.C. Gilbert Number 2 ½ Erector Set

A.C. Gilbert Chemistry Experimental Lab Case

A.C. Gilbert Meteor Game

A.C. Gilbert Puzzle Party

Arts of the Great War Collection