One of the underlying themes of this blog is that every toy has a story. And in the case of the book, The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made, what a story it is! Over the course of 224 pages, author Bruce Watson paints an insightful portrait of toy industry legend Albert Carlton (A.C.) Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set and founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company.
Watson weaves A.C. Gilbert’s business acumen, boundless energy, and marketing prowess into more than a simple tale of a company’s rise to prominence in the competitive toy industry. He uses toys like the aforementioned Erector Set, chemistry sets, and toy trains, to weave a nostalgic tapestry of early 1900s Americana.
The narrative is also buoyed by the subject’s remarkable real-life exploits. In addition to his toy inventions, Gilbert was also an Olympic Gold Medalist in pole vaulting, a big-game hunter, an accomplished magician, and a Yale University-educated physician – a quintessential Renaissance man.
As his story unfolds, it becomes apparent that Gilbert routinely channeled his various outside interests into the success of his company and, like any successful businessman, was not afraid to take risks and try new things.
For example, he was one of the first toy makers to advertise extensively. He published magazines. And, he even developed a radio program focused on introducing “Gilbert Boys” to the science behind his inventions, as well as tips on life and growing up.
In 1916, Gilbert co-founded the Toy Manufacturers of America, the first trade association for the toy industry, and served as its first president. In 1918, he put on his lobbyist hat and banded together with others in the toy industry to convince the U.S. Government’s Council of National Defense to abandon its plans to impose a country-wide embargo on the buying and selling of Christmas gifts in support of the war effort.
One of the sources of information for this book is The Man Who Lives in Paradise, A.C. Gilbert’s autobiography — a title that is now definitely on my “must read” list.
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