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A.C. Gilbert –An Inventive Connecticut Yankee Made Learning Child’s Play

Published: March 14, 2001

JAN HOWARD

    A.C. Gilbert –

    An Inventive Connecticut Yankee Made Learning Child’s Play

    By Jan Howard

    Entrepreneur, magician, toy maker, athlete, physician, and developer – all these words can be used to describe the late Alfred Carlton Gilbert of New Haven.

    The many accomplishments of Mr Gilbert were the subject of a lecture by John Vanacore sponsored by the Newtown Historical Society on March 12 at the C.H. Booth Library. Mr Vanacore and his wife, Robin, are collectors of Gilbert memorabilia.

    Examples of some of the Gilbert Company’s toys and household products were spread out on tables in the library meeting room for guest to admire after the presentation.

    Mr Gilbert, a toy maker for much of the 20th Century, was also a man of many talents and had a multi-faceted career. He was at various times a magician, an Olympic athlete and pole vault record holder, physician, manufacturer, and developer.

    Most of the toys Mr Gilbert made were designed with boys in mind, such as chemistry sets, trains, tool chests, and Erector Sets.

    “I had a lot of Gilbert things as a boy,” Mr Vanacore said. “I had magic sets, Erector Sets, and trains.

    “Gilbert was one of the big employers in the New Haven area,” he said. “After 50 years, people who worked there still meet yearly to recount their experiences.”

    “A.C. Gilbert was far ahead of his time,” Mr Vanacore said. People who worked for the Gilbert company had a pension plan, access to legal advice through a company attorney, a company cafeteria, morning and evening breaks, a 12-month maternity leave, and partial payment of medical insurance, he noted. He made arrangements with mothers to bring work to them at home.

    “He never looked at his people as workers. You were a co-worker. His door was always open, and he was A.C. to everyone,” he said. “The man took care of his people well.”

    His company, which sometimes employed two to three generations of a family, operated without a union the entire time he owned it.

    A.C. Gilbert was born in 1884 in Salem, Ore. His father, a banker, later moved the family to Moscow, Id.  “A.C. grew up in farm country with farm values,” he said. “He had drive and a vision. He believed in achievement. His father encouraged him.

    “He wanted to be number one in everything he did,” Mr Vanacore said. “It was his attitude through most of his life.”

    As a child, he was interested in athletics, and set up wrestling mats, rings, and a punching bag in his father’s barn. It was there that he worked out, becoming quite good for an amateur, Mr Vanacore said. He became so good with the punching bag that he ran off with the circus when it came to town. “His father brought him back,” Mr Vanacore said.

    Mr Gilbert’s first experience with magic came about through selling magazine subscriptions. His prize was a magic set. “He fell in love with magic. It always was a part of the company,” Mr Vanacore said.

    A magician, Herman the Great, came through town, and the young A.C. Gilbert was chosen to be on stage as a helper. When Herman allowed him to perform some slight of hand tricks, “he brought the house down,” Mr Vanacore said.

    During his college years at Pacific University, Mr Gilbert took part in track, wrestling, and pole vaulting, later breaking a record in an Olympic competition and winning a gold medal.

    He entered Yale, becoming an intercollegiate wrestling champ. He decided he wanted to be a physician so he could be involved in athletic training.

    He championed bamboo poles for vaulting, Mr Vanacore said. “He was the main influence in using bamboo poles.” He remained with Yale as a coach and was an Olympic official for many years.

    Mr Gilbert knew the value of being an entrepreneur, Mr Vanacore said. A Yale graduate in 1909, he often did magic at frat parties and ended up semi-professional, sometimes making up to $100 a night.

    “Magic was a big influence in his life,” Mr Vanacore said. “It developed into a great business.” While the Mysto Magic Company he founded in New Haven predominantly made magic tricks for children, it also sold professional equipment. The company was renamed when it branched out into other fields, such as toys and home products.

    At the time Mr Gilbert became interested in manufacturing toys, the American toy industry was running second to that of Germany’s. “Gilbert wanted to do something that was not being done,” Mr Vanacore said. He was on a train when he saw girders being constructed. “An idea hit him, and he went home and pieced together what would become erector girders. The Erector Set was born.” It was called one of the top ten toys ever created.

    “The Erector Set has been a hit ever since.” Mr Vanacore said.

    The Erector Set included a motor, which was large and clumsy. “It took a lot of finesse for kids to do,” he said. Mr Gilbert began looking for a way to make the motors smaller. With an engineer, Mr Gilbert was instrumental in developing enameled wire. “It was a phenomenal invention, and one of the major accomplishments in his time.”

    The smaller, more powerful electrical motor made it possible for the production of household products, such as fans, beaters, mixers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, and other electrical appliances. “At the time he was the largest manufacturer of small motored appliances in the United States,” Mr Vanacore said.

    Toys Should Be Fun

    Mr Gilbert believed toys should be fun and give a lesson, Mr Vanacore said. “In 1917, he came out with chemistry sets. Today they wouldn’t let you make these things, but there has been no documentation of anyone being hurt by a Gilbert chemistry set.

    “We did some strange things with our chemistry set,” he said. “But it was not dangerous as it was set up.”

    Following World War II, his company made an atomic energy kit. “It included a small piece of low level uranium and a real working Geiger counter,” Mr Vanacore said. “Every toy he made performed actual work. This was an expensive toy. There are very few left.”

    In the late 1930s, he bought the American Flyer line of model trains in Chicago and relocated its manufacturing facilities to New Haven. “The trains were okay but klunky,” Mr Vanacore said. After World War II, he redesigned the trains for more realism. “He wanted to build something more realistic, but durable.”

    Mr Gilbert scaled the trains down and came out with S gauge trains. “They were more precise but durable,” he said. “They could run on a track, but were interesting.”

    When the War Production Board wanted to shut down the fledgling toy industry during World War I, Mr Gilbert went to Washington, taking with him some of his educational toys.

    He was given 15 minutes to talk about the value of toys, Mr Vanacore said. But for three hours, generals and officials were playing with the toys while he explained the importance of toys to the war effort, using chemistry sets and toy subs as examples. The War Production Board decided toys could continue to be manufactured.

    During World War II there was a suspension of toy production, and the factory, converted to war work, made a precision motor for use on fighter planes. The company won four E awards, and employed 2,500 people. Following the war, the company returned to making toys.

    A man of many talents and interests, Mr Gilbert had the sixth radio station in the United States. A 125-foot tower next to his manufacturing plant was one of the defining points of New Haven, Mr Vanacore said. “He was shrewd in the use of radio and used it as a means to enhance his businesses. He is credited with building the first wooden case radio.”

    Mr Gilbert was also one of the first people to use well-known sports people, such as Babe Ruth, to endorse his products. He refurbished an old circus train car to broadcast from, outfitted it with his products, and sent it out touring the country.

      He loved the land, and after purchasing a large tract of land, built his dream house with an artificial waterfall, gate house, and kennels. As a homeowner, he wanted others to have a nice house, so he bought land and sold off lots. He also developed some homes himself. He created a park for employees, now Paradise Park, with ball fields, a banquet facility, and walking paths, Mr Vanacore said.

    In 1961, A.C. Gilbert died. His son, who took over the business, “wasn’t the visionary his father was. He didn’t have the fire A.C. did,” Mr Vanacore said. The family eventually sold their shares to another company, which cheapened the product line and entered into agreements to sell on consignment. In 1967 it filed for bankruptcy.

    “Everybody laments the passing of the company,” Mr Vanacore said. “Gilbert was more than an industry, it was a way of life. A.C. was a man who tried to take care of people.”

    Mr Vanacore noted, “After all Gilbert did for New Haven, there are no statues of him, and not much has been written about him.”

    His factory is now a business condominium, with offices for architects and accountants. “They do appreciate the Gilbert mystique,” Mr Vanacore said. “His office has remained the same.” Because the building is for sale, he noted, Gilbert collectors are hoping there is some way to save the office as a museum.