Journalist Watson offers up the life and times of Alfred C. Gilbert (1884–1961) with an aura of homage one might expect from anyone who ever, in childhood, confronted the subject’s chief contribution to American culture: the Erector Set.
The biographer’s job is made all the more rewarding by Gilbert’s multifaceted dynamism: with what would be a toy bulldog’s body by today’s standards of male physique, he rode a vaulting pole to world records and an Olympic Gold Medal. Leaving Yale’s medical school with an M.D., he promptly abandoned medicine for magic, founding Mysto Manufacturing in New Haven, Connecticut, to hawk a series of parlor tricks that he himself had excelled at as a kid. Even then, A.C., as he became universally known by associates and freckle-faced customers alike, had his magnum opus in mind: by stamping a simple corrugation on a toy-scale “girder” that resembled those used in heavy construction for bridges and skyscrapers all over America, Gilbert produced a stiffer, superior component. Yet the rest may well not have been history, the author points out, if Gilbert hadn’t “made himself part of the package.” Such deceptively simple-minded slogans as “Hey Boys, Make Lots of Toys,” delivered under Gilbert’s likeness both in Erector ads and on packaging, Watson observes, were the product of a genius who essentially practiced boyhood for his entire adult life in order to fully plumb the market. Chemistry sets, microscopes, and even—after WWII—a nuclear science kit that included a small sample of radioactive material followed, but none challenged the ever-widening line (at one point including a kit that weighed over 100 pounds and cost $150) of Erector Sets. Faced with competitive “youth culture” marketing that screamed instant gratification in the mid-’50s, Gilbert finally grew up and left the company.
Artfully nostalgic account of a phenomenon that survived two world wars but not Elvis.