The nation at war in December of 1917 had no time for frivolous things. Perhaps right in their sentiments but wrong in their action, the men in the United States War Department thought it would be unpatriotic for the nation to be celebrating while American dough boys were slugging it out with the Hun in the trenches in France. So they decided to cancel Christmas.
No tree. No decorations. No gifts. Christmas of 1917 was to be a somber occasion in which American citizens, by their self-denial, would (somehow) provide moral support to the troops fighting in the Marne and along the Maginot Line.
AC decided he had to do something. That “something” was to travel to Washington D.C. and meet with the Secretary of War and the top guns in the War department. He walked into the meeting armed to the teeth. With toys.
Trains and trucks built from AC’s erector set; a submarine; a bridge, a biplane, a tank. AC laid out all his toys on a long oak table before the men of the War Department. Then he began to talk. As he talked, the men began examining the toys. As AC continued, they actually began playing with AC’s toys.
The point of AC’s little speech was that building and playing with such toys prepared children for the adult world by teaching them industrial design, structural engineering, manufacturing assembly and so on. Such abilities were essential to a nation’s prosperity in peacetime, he declared, but critical to a nation during times of war.
When the half-hour granted AC for his talk was up, the men of the United States War Department, leaders of one of the most powerful nation on Earth, were on the carpeted floor of the conference room engaging in some serious play with the toys AC had brought them. AC’s point was made. Christmas in 1918 America was celebrated with trees, decorations and gift giving. And AC himself thenceforward became known as the man who saved Christmas in America (Watson).
During the war, the A.C. Gilbert Company became a munitions producer, something that AC viewed as a patriotic, necessary responsibility but which he, nonetheless, thought of as grim irony. The war finally over, AC happily returned to toy making and over the following decades not only introduced new, improved version of his Erector Set—building the Gilbert Toy Company into one of the largest toy makers in the world—but also a glass blowing kit, various chemistry sets, including one specifically for girls, physics sets, radio kits and an “Atomic Energy Lab” with a working Geiger counter, among many others. But it was another toy that, in 1946, took the nation by storm, as his Erector Set had done nearly a half-century before: The American Flyer Train Set.
AC bought the American Flyer Manufacturing Co. out of Chicago and shortly thereafter introduced what would become the train set every kid from Schenectady to San Francisco yearned to see under the tree on Christmas morning. Scaled to 3/16 to the inch, running on two-rail track with Pul-Mor Power, smoking and roaring into living rooms across the country, the “S” gauge American Flyer was among the most realistic train sets sold by anyone, including A.C.’s chief competitor, Lionel.
Today, AC’s Erector Set is still available (from what was Gilbert Toys chief rival—the Meccano Company, which is today, Meccano Toys, Ltd.). You can get train sets modeled after his 3/16th American Flyer, too. Also chemistry sets, doctor kits, building sets, tiny tools for eager little hands and books about construction heroes, like Bob the Builder®. AC, through his influence, continues to teach the children of the 21st Century that thinking is fun.
A.C. Gilbert was a man of unflappable optimism. He became a kind of Pied Piper to the youth of America, enthusiastically calling on them in ads everywhere: “C’mon boys! Let’s build new toys!” The success of Gilbert Toys rested on that optimism, on that enthusiasm—and on AC’s nimble, inventive mind. At his death in 1962, A.C. Gilbert held 150 patents—all of them going into the building of “toys for his boys.” And, later, for his girls.
That optimism, which animated everything AC did, was perhaps best revealed in his attitude toward his childhood. AC, when talking to others, particularly to the kids of the country—in ads, in radio addresses, in personal appearances—would portray his boyhood as a sunlight world, filled with wonders and puzzles and things to build, all of it just aching to be discovered, understood and achieved. Watson in his book observes that AC must have experienced his share of hardships growing up. But AC never mentioned them. It wasn’t, Watson points out, that A.C. was trying to evade those memories; or that he was somehow ashamed of them; or that they didn’t have an impact on him. AC just didn’t think those memories important. He just didn’t think that suffering counted for much of anything. AC knew that life was too much fun for that and—like his childhood hero, Tom Swift—that thinking things up, then building them, was the most fun of all.
Thanks to him, the children who grew up to build America into the greatest scientific, technological and industrial nation in history came to know that, too.
- Watson, Bruce. The Man Who Changed How Boys And Toys Were Made: The Life And Times of A. C. Gilbert—The Man Who Saved Christmas. Penguin. New York, 2002.
- “Inventor of the Week.” Massachusetts Institute of Technology. December, 1998.
- “The RFG Toy Company.” A Short History of the American Flyer. 1999-2006.