The Gilbert Epoch

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Christmas 1954. The package speaks through its wrappings. The box is large and heavy... nearly 16 pounds. No ordinary box, either, but a bright red steel case. Its contents: the A. C. Gilbert 8 1/2 Erector set complete with four-speed forward and reverse gearing electric engine. At $24.50, this construction set is America's single most valuable present for boys in 1954. Mr. Gilbert's portrait and the greeting Hello Boys! welcomes new owners to the How to Make 'Em book. His signature closes the introduction. Many boys felt their Erector set was a gift from A. C. Gilbert himself, a soul mate who knew their dreams.

New Haven 1954. Alfred Carleton Gilbert, now seventy, releases The Man Who Lives in Paradise, a 374-page autobiography written with Marshall McClintock. There's a tension in Paradise... it's a relaxed reminiscence of an intense life, a life of extraordinary achievements: Gilbert the Olympic champion, Gilbert the medical student, the spokesman for the toy industry, the radio pioneer, the dog breeder, the big-game hunter, the real estate developer, the inventor, the magician. Paradise is an entertaining book, but it comes across as the skillful performance of a magician utterly in control of the stage. Do we encounter Gilbert in Paradise, or one of his inventions?

Today, we know Gilbert primarily through the shared recollections of Christmas encounters. Those boys of 1954 are now graying men. But they have not forgotten their Erector Sets, their Chemistry Sets, their American Flyer Trains, or the man they associate with them. These men share a sense that they belonged to a vastly different age. The trains and toys of that age are passionately collected and documented, but little has been written about Gilbert himself and his shaping of that age. This look at Gilbert's reign as a shaper of American youth culture and the experience of his education--an experience that became the philosophy that drove his company and his success.

A. C. Gilbert entered manufacturing in 1909, producing magic tricks with a New Haven partner John Petrie. Gilbert abandoned the advantages of a medical degree that he had earned from Yale in favor of a passion for magic that he had pursued since he was nine. In 1913, Gilbert broke away from Petrie in order to produce the steel construction toy that would remain his company's most popular product for 50 years. Gilbert renamed his Mysto Manufacturing Company The A. C. Gilbert Company as he moved from magic to a broad line of learning toys. The American toy industry had been in its infancy. Note: Gilbert met early success in spite of, and, in part, because of the disruptions of the first World War. Toys imported from Germany and England had dominated the small high end playthings market. Gilbert grew as the War preoccupied those competitors. By 1941, Gilbert opened his first Gilbert Hall of Science, a toy department store in New York and could claim preeminence as the world's largest toymaker.

After the War, the company added American Flyer trains, a name and line established in Chicago that Gilbert purchased and redesigned. In 1954, A. C. can comfortably survey his life and the American toy industry from a lofty pinnacle. The Paradise of his autobiography was a 600-acre retreat he had established not far from New Haven. The name is not immodest: paradise is the estate of the ruling immortal. To his employees, to the toy industry, to American boys he had been a deity. The first half of the 20th century had been Gilbert's Age.

And to himself? Gilbert's self-confidence was so deeply engrained that he was at ease with his role in his company and in his time. He let his accomplishments speak. He needed few trappings of rank. He was fond of comfortable flannel shirts and often surprised young workers who would not recognize a company president informally attired. He was sincere in his closeness to his employees, whom he called co-workers, and sought them out to congratulate them on their birthdays. Yet his passion for his products was intensely personal. He introduced his catalogs and instruction books with personal salutations, his picture, his signature. In The Man Who Lives in Paradise, Gilbert tells the story of his company and his age as his story. His was a life of the self-fulfillment he offered in all of his learning toys. He promised boys that the discipline they learned in making things would prepare them to. make their way in the world. Gilbert's epoch was an age of individual, self-guided discovery and achievement.

Erector sets equip youngsters to build the great machines of western civilization, chemistry sets to manipulate fundamental forces, model trains to fashion whole empires. Gilbert offers more than instructions for the models he pictures in his catalogs: he offers a model for learning. However, he develops this model not in his most famous toys, but in his experience of his first passion: magic sets.

By age 9, Gilbert had come to believe that it was his destiny to be master of his domain. He had grown up in Salem, Oregon, the son of a successful businessman. His family had followed opportunity westward. As a youth he was an expert trapper and promising athlete but his abiding passion was more urbane. Selling subscriptions to Youth's Companion, he won a magic set and in it found his life philosophy. A Salem performance by a travelling magician, Herman the Great, reinforced this discovery. Called from the audience to assist Herman, the young Gilbert seized center stage and would not relinquish it for 70 years. He earned his spending money at Yale with magic tricks. He performed at the Hyperion and Palace in New Haven and traveled to New York's vaudeville stages. He co-founded a company that would provide props to professional magicians for 60 years. His own company would produce magic sets throughout its life. It was not uncommon for A. C. to open serious business meetings with a deft trick. Though Gilbert only wistfully flirted with the idea of a serious stage magic career, his interest was deeper and more significant than a parlor amusement. In the performance of magic, A. C. Gilbert learned the content and process of his major contributions.

A magician's tools are his instrument: simple (coins, silk scarves) or intricate (smoke and mirrors); these props express the art. The tools require mastery. The tools invite mastery. With Petrie, Gilbert established The Mysto Magic Company to produce apparatus for the stage magicians whose numbers swelled in the pinnacle years of vaudeville. Mysto also produced boxed sets, magic kits for boys. Gilbert took a special interest in selling those sets. He wanted to share the thrill and discipline he had enjoyed since his youth. The Magic Sets... and ultimately all Gilbert toys... are mere instruments. Gilbert instructs Practice, Practice! The goal is first to delight the audience and beyond that to develop a smoothness and poise that will prepare you for professional work or public life.

Mastery is a theme that cuts across all of Gilbert's pursuits. He is a champion athlete not just in Pole Vaulting at which he sets world records and captures an Olympic Gold Medal. He captures titles in wrestling, gymnastics, Indian clubs, and chin-ups. He notes that he was invited to play football almost apologetically, not quite admitting that he preferred the pure control of individual performance. He's more sanguine about golf, which he gives up, acknowledging this was in part because his success was only modest.

His passion for mastery in sport transcends his personal interests. He would join the American Olympic Committee. But, in a 1952 New Yorker profile, he recalls fondly his hands-on participation in sport. He left his busy office on spring afternoons to coach pole vaulting at Yale. His tutelage brought Yale pole vaulters to two more world record thresholds at 13 feet and 14 feet. He would stop by a local private school, Hamden Hall, to coach his nephew, Charlton, an aspiring scholastic pole vaulter. Coaching was an art to be perfected just as the vault had been.

Gilbert's devotion to German Shepherds expresses the same passion for training and mastery. Whether or not Gilbert's claim to have introduced Shepherds in this country can be substantiated, he entered breeding and training with characteristic exuberance. His dog Alf became an American champion in the 20's; his dog Asta, a world champion. He even imported two fine German trainers to run his Maraldene Kennels. Shepherds' extraordinary intelligence appealed to Gilbert: the best can master 100 discrete commands. Shepherds understand Gilbert's passion for training.

Returning to the toys, even the Erector set is presented as an instrument of learning in which the building process is more important than the finished product. Typically, the youth who spent 18 hours constructing and perfecting the Ferris Wheel would actually operate it for a few minutes now and then to test that it was working or to show it off. It was not meant to stage a carnival; it was meant to be constructed and deconstructed.

A significant appeal of the Erector set was the many levels of mastery it required. Its fundamental difficulty was appealing. Its nuts and bolts required substantial dexterity... though that challenge may not be enough to justify Gilbert's use of peculiarly thin nuts. The How to Make 'Em books actually evolved to rely nearly entirely on single illustrations of models with no explanatory instructions. It was more effective, and more gratifying, to rely on the young engineers' powers of observation, deduction and inference than to risk confusion in step-by-step instructions: hence, the 18 hours or more to perfect the Ferris Wheel. Not all would-be builders finished, of course. But those who survived came away with a smoothness and poise, prepared for life. Veterans of the Erector generation find a vague incompleteness in the ease and precision of LEGO® construction. Nothing in LEGO® matches the test of the Ferris wheel's improbable rim, which was constructed of 13 rather than the logical 12 segments. Gilbert the magician seemed to want to be sure you were watching very closely. The bolder the challenge to be mastered, the sweeter the satisfaction.

Gilbert's magic shapes both what he will offer American youth and also shapes how he will offer it. He recounts selling trick boxes during his Yale Christmas vacation in his first year of partnership with Petrie: the greatest sale of my whole career (Paradise p105). He demonstrated the magic tricks in the window of aNew Haven bookstore and sold $600 worth of sets (close to the value of a new Ford in 1909 dollars). Elated, he began to multiply that return by the number of book and toy stores in the country and to predict his certain rise to millionairedom--only to stop short when he realized that he could not perform in all those stores. Nor was it likely that he could hire first rate magicians to do the selling. Gilbert understood that magic exists only when there is an audience to appreciate it. Confident that he could always make the sale if he had the audience, Gilbert would set out to win audiences.

By 1911, Gilbert had begun to realize that he needed a new act. In spite of the depth of his love for magic, too many parents could dismiss magic as an amusement. The principles of mass production had begun to reduce the costs of consumer goods, but low wages and traditions of frugality prevailed. Most children received few store-bought toys. Advantaged children might receive British and German imports. The American toy business was undeveloped: few families were able or willing to part with resources for anything no~ essential. He needed an essential toy. In the Erector Set, he formulated a brilliant marketing strategy. To boys it offered the pleasure of construction. It was not a toy but the hundred toys it built. To parents, Erector was no mere toy but a learning tool. It equipped youth for the age of Edison, Ford, Bell and the Wright brothers.

The idea of educational toys was not new. Game publishers had, since their origins a century before, emphasized the practical and moral values of their products. But Gilbert might be considered the father of the American toy industry by virtue of his reconceptualizing of the toy's purpose. When Gilbert entered the toy marketplace in 1909 with his allsteel construction set, there was no shortage of producers of toys, even of construction toys very much like Gilbert'S, although the full flowering of capability he offered in all of his learning toys was yet to be recognized. Gilbert pressed beyond their claims. He needed to. Erector sets were expensive (By the mid 20's top-end sets cost $25, a week's wage for most workers). He persuaded parents his Erector Set was an investment in the child's future.

Gilbert is aware of the significance of that persuasion. Gilbert is a natural advertiser. In Paradise (p129) Gilbert reflects that he was the first toy manufacturer to purchase big space in the national magazines: Good Housekeeping, Saturday Evening Post, Popular Mechanics, American Boy, etc. A careful check of St. Nicholas for 1913 shows other toy promoters, including his rival Meccano. But he is right in remembering that his ads were unique in the years when consumer advertising was brand new. His ads are intensely personal. He addresses boys personally; he offers his story. He offers contests. He invites boys to write him to suggest new Erector models. The letters came in the thousands: all assiduously answered. Gilbert realized the power of personal identity in promotion before Frank Perdue and Lee Iacocca were born.

To appreciate Gilbert's genius for innovation, consider his adventures in radio. He set out to sell radios in 1920, the first year of commercial broadcast radio. To promote the radios he set up Connecticut's first station, the 6th in the nation. He then constructed a garish yellow show room rail car with a collapsible antenna. (It was just another travelling magic show.) It traveled from town to town well into the ·midwest using the chance to hear the new medium to draw audiences... who then, of course, encountered his whole line of products. When the rail car traveled beyond the reach of the New Haven signal, one of the men faked the broadcast with a microphone in the car's bathroom--an ignominious beginning to advertising to children on the radio. Two years into the experiment, Gilbert realized that the trappings and expense of the car were unnecessary. Radio had its own appeal. He moved his business to the newly established NBC network. Gilbert traveled to New York to host his own sports commentary program, perhaps the first in the genre. He engaged Babe Ruth to speak for Gilbert products, which was among the first formal sports endorsements. Gilbert's frequent reference to his Olympic achievements might itself be considered one of the tradition's beginning. Gilbert was remarkably prescient in anticipating radio's power to entertain and sell.

Gilbert's final major promotional invention was The Gilbert Hall of Science, a department store of his products which opened in New York in 1941. More would follow in other major cities. Finally, the Magician owns his own theater. It was a learning and selling environment that was interactive: touch it, test it. It introduced people to toys and tools they might not otherwise ever contemplate: with its careful mixture of commerce and communication, the Hall of Science was in fact an antecedent of the now burgeoning science centers movement.

Gilbert's mastery of promotion made his name the best known in toys by 1954. But his success was grounded in the value of his products, and the care with which he tended his unique niche: the educational toy. The niche had boundaries. He never marketed to schools, for example. He recognized his toys required time and freedom unlikely within structured schools. His experiments were designed for individuals, not for groups.

The discipline of Gilbert's market is reflected in two significant failures. In 1920, Gilbert rebounded from the constraints of the War with. an ambitious line of books and kits called the Master Hand Series. These were high school level books of significant depth and scope: Optics, Acoustics, Surveying, Signaling, Hydrology, Metrology, for example. They were almost an entry into the emerging correspondence school market. Quietly the sets disappear by the decade's end: too much training, too little toy. Again in the 1950's Gilbert abandons caution and introduces the Atomic Energy Set: an expensive chemistry set with a working cloud chamber, Geiger counter, and radioactive samples. Few sold. In part, the moment may have marked a broader change in the public's attitude toward chemistry. Potential customers who needed to be reassured that it was not possible to build an atomic bomb with the set revealed a deeper fear than is obvious in the superstitious paranoia of the question. The set intended to win acceptance of the peaceful atom, a task that was greater than Gilbert imagined. More significant to boys, the set broke a cardinal rule: in its complexity, it could not be used without adult help. No Gilbert toy succeeded whose ownership did not remain the child's.

It is not surprising that Gilbert would undertake an enterprise as bold as the Atomic Energy Set. He had, from the beginning, embraced the new. The Erector models of elevators, train trestles, and steam engines that now look quaint represented innovations in 1915. It is worth noting that the Scouting movement which had begun to flourish just after the turn of the century responded to many of the needs that concerned Gilbert, but differently by 180 degrees of variance. Scouting looked to the woodsmen of the 19th century (Crockett, Boone) as models of self-reliant resourcefulness. Gilbert looked forward. He prepared boys for the age of steel and electricity. Consider the electric motor: it is the heart of the Erector Set. In many households the Erector Set may have introduced a first motor. In the teens, only half of American households had round-theclock electricity. And the clock was still wound by hand. Treadles still drove sewing machines. Gilbert was himself an active contributor to motor innovation, patenting, for example, a process for coating wires that replaced the cumbersome thread wrapping. Gilbert applied his expertise won in producing toy motors to household motors, creating an extensive appliance line to apply his manufacturing capacity in the half of the year left idle by the strictly seasonal toy business. Gilbert appliances trace the evolution of residential electricity: first fans, then mixers, useless at first without stands, then a vacuum, a hair dryer, and finally, in the 1950's an automatic coffee maker that failed, but that sounds like a Mister Coffee® ahead of its time. Play can rehearse new technologies (as computer games do today). In Gilbert, the toy motor and the new appliance motor were nearly the same. In Erector's most dramatic story of real-life application of the toy motor, Dr. Sewell employed an Erector motor for his pioneering experiment in constructing the first successful heart bypass pump. Literally, real life and play intersected.

The Atomic Energy Set describes another of the boundaries of Gilbert's market: its depth. One might observe that the failure of Gilbert's most sophisticated science sets calls into question how much science there was in the Gilbert Hall of Science. The chemistry sets, for example, for all of the modern glow of their package illustrations, offered 19th century experiments and rarely explored why things worked. The Erector Set, for all of its ingenuity, discussed nothing: motors, yes, but no mention of torque or revolutions per minute, the basic language of motor applications. But rather than standing as a criticism, Gilbert's grasp of the power of the sensual, practical learning of play, his acceptance of the concrete experience over concept mastery defines not only the essence of his success, it defines lessons that contemporary educators are relearning. The Constructivist Movement in education argues that children will fully integrate and internalize only science that begins in experiments of their own experience. Is Gilbert's science less because it worries little about concept? Hardly. Gilbert toys engage children in passionate exploration; they demand individual initiative and resourceful problem solving. It is not nostalgic to observe that the children who received Erector Sets in 1954 performed as well in math and science as contemporary children who should be advantaged by vast initiatives to enhance scholastic science. It would be naive to argue that Gilbert toys accounted' for the steady performance of that era. On the other hand, the dynamics of the era that embraced Gilbert toys sustained a fundamentally different educational culture.

How did a company that could boast being the world's greatest toy maker fall from its pinnacle to bankruptcy in a little more than a decade? Clearly the management was aging and unresponsive to change. A. C. himself.was reluctant to transfer control to his son, or anyone else. However, a single force in the dynamics of the era overwhelmed the Gilbert Epoch. Warning signs could be found as early as 1954. It is another measure of the significance of Gilbert in his era to consider the ruling deity to come. In 1954, Walt Disney produced his first programs for television, the foundation of a new epoch. Disney began as had Gilbert, as an entertainer: Disney's magic was animation. Like Gilbert, Disney appealed to parents' practical concerns: he created educational entertainment for television: Seal Island, Beaver Valley, The Living Desert. Gilbert had produced nature travelogues in color as early as 1937, though purely for his co-workers and their families. But the passive pictorial entertainment medium held no lasting appeal to his mind as a medium of commercial profit. Like Gilbert, Disney hosted his own shows and spoke for his company. Gilbert had built his own department stores, but Disney built his own world--a new world in an alternate medium.

Toy making had been suspended during World War II. Gilbert crafted a bold return by redesigning the American Flyer line he had purchased. Trains offered a new market share: a high-end toy for adults as well as the child. Gilbert may have sensed the need for this new line out of his realization that large entities like GE and Westinghouse would gobble up the burgeoning appliance market. From 1946 to 1954 trains carried the company, 40% of its sales. But by 1954, new highways began to compete with passenger trains: as real trains slipped in prominence, the romance diminished; interest in toy trains suffered. By 1954 suburban developments (Gilbert built a few himself) reshaped the space and time available for traditional toy train construction. And in 1954 television soap operas began to replace radio soap operas. Fathers and sons could easily work on trains while listening to the radio; with television, work on train layouts stopped.

Television fundamentally altered the American entertainment experience with a tremendous impact on a toy-maker like Gilbert. The Disney Company, also, supplanted Gilbert, employing the same dynamics which fostered Gilbert, but with a radically different emphasis on "edutainment'' rather than creative activity. Disney has now become a major force in how contemporary commercial science centers present science as an activity. Gilbert, a traditionalist in culture and educational philosophy, would turn over in his grave if could observe the phenomenon as it now appears. The economics changed as well, with cheaper disposable toys and plastic replacing metal. At the same time, the power of the career-forming educational model for boys was diminishing. In 1930 and 1931, in the middle of the Gilbert era, the Thomas A. Edison Scholarships to encourage science and engineering were a dramatic natiopal innovation, including such prorriinent Americans as Lucky Lindberg, General "Black Jack" Pershing, and George Eastman, with Edison among other notables, as the judges. By the 1950s and 1960s, this kind of focal energy was dissipating. America had changed, but the Gilbert Company, somehow, could no longer change with it. Valuable as it had been both as cultural former and cultural barometer, the Gilbert show was over.

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