This Sexist 1920s Toy is Part of the Reason for the Women in STEM Gap

Boys got Erector Sets. Girls got this stellar consolation prize

The "Little Laundress" was manufactured by a sister company to the one that invented the Erector Set. Courtesy JitterBuzz. Image by Randy Sauder

Picture it: Christmas morning, 1922. Jimmy unwraps an Erector Set. Jane gets a Little Laundress.

There is a shortage of women in the STEM professions—science, technology, engineering and math. Its roots are hard to pin down, but the gap “starts very early, when girls in middle school and high school start getting messages that math and science are for boys,” activist Karen Purcell told Fortune. That messaging might go back even further: to the toys kids are presented with.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert, an American toy maker still beloved for inventing the Erector Set, was born on this day in 1884. He’s less known for a line of girls’ toys that were also associated with his toy-manufacturing prowess, although the girls' toys may have been directly managed by other members of his family. Much is written about the Erector Set, but almost nothing has been written about the Little Laundress.

The Erector Set, manufactured by the A.C. Gilbert Company, was invented in 1911 and patented in 1913, writes Wired. “Considered to be the first toy with a national ad campaign, Erector ads depicted grown-up builders helping their sons, saying they’d go on to careers in chemistry and engineering. ‘Boys Today, Men Tomorrow!’ read one print advertisement.”

Former U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, George Washington Bridge designer Othmar H. Ammann and countless others credit their interest in engineering to the Erector Set. Not as well-known are the numerous girls who may instead have been confronted with the offerings of La Velle, the company associated with Gilbert that produced toys for girls. La Velle also produced a children’s record series.

La Velle billed itself as “specialists in girls’ toys and games.” Its toys included, in addition to the "Laundress": Pla-Klay, a Play-Doh predecessor that was more clearly linked with baking; the “Little Cook” and the “Make-Believe Nurse’s Outfit.” It also had a football game, Anchor Blocks and a boxing game using tops, but these games featured male figures, not female ones. 

On the one hand, it was the 1920s. Gender roles in the United States were pretty solid, and it was in the interest of wealthy men like Gilbert to keep it that way. Women in the workforce were paid less, partly on the rationale that they would eventually leave to take up their “real” job as wives and mothers while being supported by a full-wage-earning man. There's nothing wrong with being a wife and mother, but a lot is wrong with expecting women to do only those things.

It would be unfair to single out Gilbert, a toy manufacturer, for not making progressive girls toys that probably wouldn’t have sold anyway, given the attitudes of the time. They might not even sell today. On the other hand, it is worth remembering what one of the most influential toy-makers of the early twentieth century made for girls. (In the 1950s, the A.C Gilbert Company did start making a lab technician set geared toward girls, but even that speaks to messaging that girls should be on the sidelines, not doing the groundbreaking research.)

The Erector Set famously encouraged boys to dream big: They would build buildings, create machines, build bridges and artificial hearts and construct the world of tomorrow. The Little Laundress? It encouraged girls to dream a much smaller dream, one that was sadly close to the reality they were already living. It encouraged them to wash clothes.

No wonder researchers are calling for an end to gendered toys