“Look at Gilbert toys first…they last!”
A.C. Gilbert was his own brand: he was the company voice. His signature and image are American icons. The A. C. Gilbert Company was an American toy company, once one of the largest toy companies in the world. It is best known for introducing the Erector Set (a construction toy similar to Meccano in the rest of the world) to the marketplace.
Gilbert was founded in 1909 in Westville, Connecticut, originally as a company providing supplies for magic (Alfred Carlton Gilbert was a magician). Gilbert invented Erector in 1911, inspired by railroad girders, and the construction toy was introduced two years later. By 1935, Gilbert was also producing microscopes.
In 1938, Gilbert purchased American Flyer, a struggling manufacturer of toy trains. Gilbert re-designed the entire product line, producing 1:64 scale trains running on O gauge track. Although these are sometimes referred to as S scale or S gauge trains, they are technically O27. At the same time, Gilbert introduced a line of HO scale trains, which were primarily marketed under the brand name Gilbert HO. Gilbert was the largest employer in New Haven from the early 1930s to the late 1950s employing more than 5000 in 3 shifts at its Sound Street Manufacturing facility. In the late 1930s the company expanded to produce home house products and small appliances including, mixers, milk shake machines, toasters, stoves and ovens, and washers.
By 1942, Gilbert was producing equipment for military aircraft for use in World War II.
Gilbert introduced S gauge model railroads in 1946, mostly in response to the shortcomings of O scale utilized by Lionel and Marx. These newer American Flyer trains were smaller and proportioned more realistically than either the pre-war American Flyer trains or its post-war competition. Although these new trains were popular, Lionel outsold American Flyer nearly 2 to 1.From 1922, A.C. Gilbert made chemistry sets in various sizes as well as similar sets for the budding scientist, adding investigations into radioactivity in the 1950s with a kit featuring a Geiger counter. A.C. Gilbert began making microscope kits in 1934. A line of inexpensive reflector telescopes followed the Sputnik-inspired science craze in the late 1950s.
Gilbert struggled somewhat after the death of its founder in 1961. Gilbert’s family sold out its shares, and the company was never profitable under its new ownership. In 1965 A.C. Gilbert produced James Bond movie tie-in figures and a slot car road race set featuring Bond’s Aston Martin DB5. By 1967, Gilbert was out of business. Erector was sold to Gabriel Industries and moved production from Erector Square to Lancaster, PA. American Flyer was sold to Lionel.
Although A. C. Gilbert has not existed as a company for several decades, Gabriel continued to use the brand name on its Erector set and microscope products, a practice that subsequent owners of the Erector brand have continued. Current Erector toys have the words “The construction toy from A. C. Gilbert” on their packaging. Lionel also uses the brand name on its American Flyer products, along with the old Gilbert catchphrase, “Developed at the Gilbert Hall of Science,” on its product packaging.A collection of Gilbert trains, Erector sets and objects built from them, chemistry sets, etc. is displayed in the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Connecticut. The factory building now provides space for artists and others in the Erector Square complex.(1)
For 50 years, Alfred Carlton Gilbert put his signature on toys for children. He built a world of learning tools that were unified by a distinct, personal vision. No toymaker’s name in history is better known.
Gilbert, like Eli Whitney, was a pivotal figure in the history of hands-on education. From his factory complex in Hamden, Eli Whitney influenced training and education in the 19th century; at Erector Square in New Haven, Gilbert built the toys that defined it for the 20th century.
The Eli Whitney Museum collects and studies the products and legacy of A.C. Gilbert and his company. Between 1909 and 1964, the Gilbert Company was the premiere producer of learning toys in the world. Its showroom in New York, the Gilbert Hall of Science, was an emporium of experimental learning and a forerunner of the modern science museum. The Eli Whitney Museum’s workshops still nurture that experimental learning.(2)
(2) Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop
images courtesy Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop