“Hello Boys! Become an Erector Master Engineer!”

With no “hanky-panky gimcracks,” A. C. Gilbert’s Erector sets taught boys more than just the nuts and bolts

Print advertisement for Erector Set, circa 1922
Print advertisement for Erector Set, circa 1922 Wikimedia Commons

Christmas of 1918 was just months away, and the United States — immersed in the war effort — was considering calling off Santa. Perhaps parents should invest in Liberty bonds rather than in toys, the powers-that-be reasoned. Why should toys be saved when so many other items were being sacrificed during wartime?

Addressing the Council of National Defense in a special meeting, an energetic businessman from New Haven, Connecticut, explained why. America, argued A. C. Gilbert, was the home of educational toys, toys that prepared our boys for adulthood. He also brought examples. Soon, the Secretaries of War, the Navy, Commerce and the Interior were playing with tiny submarines and engines, reading children's books and tinkering with A. C. Gilbert's own popular creation: the Erector set.

He was touted in the press that year as "The Man Who Saved Christmas," but as author Bruce Watson points out, A. C. Gilbert and his trusty Erector sets also saved "rainy afternoons from boredom" and "inquiring minds...from the tedium of science textbooks." From 1913, when he released his first boxes of steel girders, nuts and bolts, till his death in 1961, A. C. Gilbert was inseparable from the popular toy, and the toy was inseparable from American boyhood.

Whether as a champion pole-vaulter, a professional magician or a purveyor of constructive fun, A. C. Gilbert set out to be the very best — and encouraged the same drive in his young customers. Times and toys have changed, and Gilbert's Erector sets and science kits now sell only among collectors. But the fond memories of millions of grown-up "Erector Engineers" — including our author — live on.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.