See several different old sets from throughout the 20th century, plus find out the toy’s history, and about the man who started it all.
A.C. Gilbert: Creator of Erector Set did more than just make money (1961)
By Jules Loh — Green Bay Press-Gazette (Green Bay, Wisconsin) February 23, 1961
If you could read all the mail Santa Claus receives each year, you’d get some idea of the popularity among American children of the time-tested erector set.
But A.C. Gilbert, who died last month, got his greatest satisfaction from the hundreds of letters showing his famous invention did something more than make money.
New York — “One night I went up to the attic and messed around,” wrote Stephen Smith of Gettysburg, Pa.
“Then I saw funny thing didn’t know what it was. I opened it and it came to my mind it was an erector set. When my father was a little boy, he had an erector. For Christmas, I wished to have an erector and a microscope and a lab set. And ever since then, I did many things with both.”
The youngster’s letter, sincere if not altogether grammatical, didn’t differ much from more than a million others written to A.C. Gilbert [Alfred Carlton Gilbert] over the years, which shows that when he died January 24 , a part of American boyhood went with him.
Will follow father
With Gilbert’s death, leadership of the company passed to his son, Alfred Carlton Gilbert, Jr., who says he’ll “make every effort to continue to create” the same type of educational toys his father made famous.
In his later years, the elder Gilbert went to the office only three days a week and concerned himself mainly with choosing new tops to add to the existing line of 51 different sets in 11 science categories.
Among the new favorites are an electronics set with which boys can build transistor radios, burglar alarms and other gadgets, and a physics set that teaches the principles of hydraulics, thermodynamics, and other scientific subjects modern boys are amazingly familiar with.
Interested boys in engineering
But none of Gilbert’s inventions (he owned more than 150 patents) has had the success of the erector — the original do-it-yourself gift that not only has occupied many a boyhood hour, but also launched many an adult career.
DON’T MISS: Vintage chemistry sets & science kits for kids from the ’60s & ’70s
“If you had read the hundreds of letters I have received from engineers who tell me their interest in their profession started with an erector set,” Gilbert once wrote, “you would know I had done something besides make money.”
More than 10 million boys have owned erector sets, and who can say how many, like Stephen Smith, have added to the ones passed along to them by their fathers; because the thing hasn’t changed a whit since A. C. Gilbert built the first one back in 1913.
Gilbert made friends through his other toys, to be sure, though company spokesmen say erector represents “a substantial part” of its science toy business.
Electric train a top item
American Flyer electric trains account for one-third of the company’s income, and science toys two-thirds.
Gilbert insisted all his toys “had to do something.” He would not allow his model airplane to remain motionless on a string. He put a rubber band in it and it flew — opening up a whole new hobby.
But no toy does more than the erector, nor were its creations confined to the playroom.
Thought came to him suddenly
The prototype model of the World War II Bailey ridge was built with a No. 10-1/2 erector. An erector was used to design industry’s gantry crane. The motor and other erector parts were used to build the first heart-lung machine, now in the Smithsonian Institution.
And at the A.C. Gilbert Co. factory in New Haven, Conn., baskets constructed from erector sets carry parts to the assembly line on overhead trolleys.
The thought for the versatile erector “seemed to come to me all of a sudden in the fall of 1911,” said Gilbert, during a time when he was commuting by rail between New Haven and New York. Girders being put up to carry new electric cables gave him the idea.
It was a success from the beginning, which is the story of Gilbert’s life.
ALSO SEE: Lionel Trains: Vintage toy locomotives from the ’50s
He was born in Salem, Oregon, Feb. 15, 1884, and tales from his adventurous boyhood read like a Mark Twain novel. The family barn was his haven, and was where his inventive knack began to bud.
He once rigged a fire house pole from the loft to the floor, for example, and the first kid to slide down landed on a lever, which flung open the door.
And one day his father, alerted by a gathering crowd, snatched young Alfred from an upper window seconds before he was about to demonstrate Salem’s first parachute jump.
ALSO SEE: 47 dangerous old playgrounds that our great-grandparents somehow survived
Slightly built youth
Gilbert was slightly built (5-foot-7 and 135 pounds in his prime) but was wiry and strong, and took offense at biographers who described him as a “frail” boy.
In college, he became captain of the track team, a star football quarterback and a wrestling champion. In 1908, he won the Olympic pole vaulting championship and set a world record (since broken).
When he decided he would like to become a physical education instructor, he felt he should have a medical degree.
He set out to get one a Yale, and helped pay his way by giving magic shows from a kit he had put together.
In 1909, he put on a demonstration in a variety store hoping to sell a few kits for Christmas money, and got orders for $600 worth.
“I sat right down and multiplied this figure by all the book stores, toy stores and department stores in the United States,” he said, “and knew that I was soon going to be a millionaire.”
He quickly discarded the less profitable idea of a physical education career (though throughout his life he worked out at 6 am daily in his own gym), borrowed $5,000 from his father, and opened the Mysto Manufacturing Co. in an old New Haven carriage house.
When he introduced his educational line of toys, he changed the name to the A. C. Gilbert Co.
Today it is a $20 million concern which no longer features magic tricks, but continues to work magic in the hearts of boys.
The greatest thrill you ever had! The new Erector (1925)
From AC Gilbert, company president: I guess most boys who have already played with Erector think that it couldn’t be improved.
Erector has given fun to many thousand boys in the past. Any boy who has never had an Erector set has missed some of the best fun in the world.
And now there is a brand-new 1925-model Erector, bigger and better than ever.
This new Erector has many new features this year. One of them is a steam shovel that digs right into the sand and dumps its contents wherever you wish. Also a dredge bucket or clam digger; electric motor which unloads a car and loads it in a truck or wagon, just like a real coal loader.
A new toy every day
You never saw a construction toy in your lives like the New Erector. It is brand-new this year the latest model with hundreds of new parts.
“Five hundred toys in one” is what one boy friend of mine called it. I expect to see some wonderful results this year from the things boys have made with Erector.
ALSO SEE: Antique toys: See what kids played with a long time ago – and that people collect now
The great New Speed Erector (1937)
Boys! You step into a dazzling new world when you own the great new speed Erector. A world in which you become the master of mighty mechanical monsters — creating them — making them run — just as your hands command.
Take a good look at that towering Bascule bridge. The patented Erector square girder with interlocking edges makes it just like real engineering. When you start up the powerful Erector electric engine, wheels whirr, gears crunch and the mighty all-steel structure is raised high into the air.
Or look at that walking beam engine. Doesn’t it look keen? And wouldn’t you like to build and run that busy-looking magnetic crane? You can make it raise or lower — swing to the right or left. Its electro-magnet is so strong, it grabs up steel girders before it touches them.
You can build all of the engineering models shown on this page — and dozens more — with one Erector Set.
There are more thrills — more hours of fun — packed in an Erector Set than anything else you can own. Tell Dad Erector is what you want most for Christmas.
Erector — not one but a thousand toys! (1952)
What a huge Erector assortment confronts you when you open the lid of this big all-steel hinged cabinet and see the mass of parts, arrayed in a double tier! Here, indeed, is a set that lasts for a lifetime, can be handed down from father to son.
Nearly 25 pounds of parts and equipment; over 300 toys all rolled into one! You can build a colorful carnival setting that will be the envy of the neighborhood: Parachute Jump, Merry-go-Round, Sideshow booths, etc.
Plus such action models as the Giant Power Plant, Dutch Windmill, Traveling Crane, Universal Crane, Double Cylinder Horizontal Engine, Hammerhead Crane with Magnet and many, many other kinds.
Models swing into action when connected with the 110-volt Electric Engine with forward-and-reverse operation and a variety of geared speeds. Parts include Boiler and Fly Wheel equipment, electro-magnet, horses, Bridge Tender’s shack, and string of lights.
Vintage Erector toy sets (1955)
What fun you’ll have building hundreds of action models in gleaming steel with world-famous Gilbert Erector.
Construct hundreds of wonderful working models! It’s easy and so much fun with Erector! Each set has loads of parts… rugged steel girders, heavy plates, precision-made gears, wheels and pinions.
Design and build your own inventions, or use the “How to Make ‘Em” book with your set. You’ll create models that operate by remote control, run forward and reverse, glow with real electric lights!
ALSO SEE: Woolworth’s toys: A wonderland of fun for kids back in the ’50s
…there’s a world of fun in every Erector set! (1960)
You can build just about anything with the all-steel parts in an Erector Set — Giant Robots that walk step-by-step, a 5 ft. tall action Parachute Jump, High Wire Bicycle Rider, Satellite Tracker, motorized Ferris Wheel, Rocket Servicing towers and literally hundreds more!
There’s an Erector set for every age and in every price range. Beginner’s set, makes Racing Car, Robot, Water Tower, etc., is ideal for 5 and 6 year-olds. Larger Erector sets make more and bigger models, are designed for older boys.
MORE: The Thingmaker: Mattel’s vintage sets that let you mold Creepy Crawlers, Fun Flowers & other little toys with Plastigoop
A.C. Gilbert steel Erector (1964)
Build for real! Build a helicopter that really whirls. Build a roller-coaster that dips and loops. Build a powerful crane that hoists steel beams! New ideas? Tear ’em down and build some more! You’ll build the real-life way with A.C. Gilbert All-Steel Erector!
Build what you like, whenever you like with Real Steel Erector. Design and build your own toys. Fun things like: a rolling, stalking robot, lunar probe vehicle, space platform, two-way inclined railroad — even on auto assembly plant… the works!
Rugged, power-packed motors — with forward and reverse gears — give your projects lifelike action. Illustrated blueprints and everything you need packed in every Erector box.
Add to and expand your Erector set whenever you wish! Lots of interchangeable parts available to help you build the largest, most complicated projects!
Erector Junior. The toy that builds fun. (1996)
“Mom, please tell Dad to play with his own toys!”
Erector Junior is double the fun — fun to build, fun to play with!
It makes tons of things from fire trucks to Ferris wheels, and the easy-to-use tools and bright plastic parts teach coordination and inspire imagination.
In fact, we designed Erector Junior specially for kids 4 to 7. The only trouble is… it’s so much fun we couldn’t make it dad-proof!
ALSO SEE: Toys R Us catalog: ‘You’ll never outgrow us’ (1987)
The Man Who Saved Christmas: Movie about A C Gilbert
This 2002 movie starred Seinfeld star Jason Alexander as Alfred Carlton Gilbert, and the one and only Ed Asner as Charles Gilbert.
DON’T MISS: Vintage chemistry sets & science kits from the ’60s & ’70s
I lived in Salem for a little over two years and I never knew they had a museum for A.C. Gilbert!