The History of A.C. Gilbert and the Creation of the Erector Set

Javier SerranohobbyDB super user Javier Serrano, aka Fjaviserr constructs some thoughts on the history of A.C Gilbert’s iconic Erector Sets. Read more of his wonderful guest posts here!

A few weeks ago, I wrote to my friend and fellow collector Christian Braun, because I was looking for some information related to the Samsonite – Lego plant which operated in Colorado from the mid 60’s to 1971.

He sent me back an article with some information about it, and inside its lines it also briefly mentioned A.C. Gilbert.

And particularly, I was very enthusiastic about that, because Mr. Gilbert is probably one of the most relevant people in the modern toy industry.

The figure of Alfred Carlton Gilbert not only highlights the relevance of his career as inventor, toy designer and businessman, but also reflects his personal achievements as a degree in medicine at Yale’s University and as gold medalist in the London 1908 Olympic Games.

To finance his university studies, he worked as an amateur magician, and surprisingly, he chose not to pursue a medical career after getting his degree. And in 1909, he founded with John Petrie, Mysto Manufacturing, a company of magic sets in New Haven, Connecticut. After a few ups and downs, the partnership was dissolved, and A.C. Gilbert bought Petrie’s rights to Mysto Manufacturing.

In 1916, the company changed its name to the A.C. Gilbert Company.

In those years, he was developing a construction toy concept based on the architecture of electrification towers, and in 1913 the Erector Set was released to the market.

We must consider that, at that time, toy manufacturers did not have national distribution, so they were focused on their local areas. The Erector set was an instant success, and became the 1913 Christmas’ toy in Connecticut and New York areas.

After that, one the greatest strategies that A.C. Gilbert introduced into the toy industry was focusing on the national market with a strong advertisement campaign in the press, not only adjusting it on the children’s target but with the goal to seduce their parents as well, with the idea that the society needed engineers and scientists.

By the mid 30’s, A.C. Gilbert Company had sold more than 30 million of the Erector sets in the United States, being the largest toy manufacturer those days. The company added to its portfolio other educational toys such as chemistry and microscope sets, without forgetting that in 1938, he acquired the rights to the American Flyer toy train line from W. O. Coleman.

Gilbert retired in 1954 and passed on the baton to his son, A.C. Gilbert, Jr. After his death in 1961, the family sold its remaining shares in the A. C. Gilbert Company to Jack Wrather group. The company went bankrupt in 1967 and closed its doors after leading the American toy industry for more than four decades.

Although some people think that the Erector set was based on the Meccano set conceived by Frank Hornby, the fact is that A.C. Gilbert contributed to build the toy industry as we know it today, and his legacy gave us more than over 150 patents which changed the concept of construction toy sets forever.

So, and in my humble opinion, I have always considered A.C. Gilbert as one of the fathers of the modern toy industry, and it is hard to believe that his legend and influence sometimes are forgotten.

I hope you find this information helpful. Have an excellent week. Let me know if you’d like to know more in the comments below.

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7 months ago

Fascinating history. Frank Hornby created Meccano in 1898, and then there were Marklin and Tekno, etc, with their own versions as well. So many toy companies wanted to get on the bandwagon back then.

Jerry Liudahl
Jerry Liudahl
7 months ago

A.C. Gilbert was born in my hometown of Salem, Oregon. There is an excellent children’s museum there named after him there that has a great display of the toys and products his company made. Very nice piece on a brilliant man and outstanding individual. Thanks!

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