How Oregon’s own “anti-grinch” saved Christmas
When Salem native Alfred Carlton Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set, learned that government officials were going to cancel Christmas with their “Buy Bonds, Not Toys” campaign, he went to Washington to change their minds. He did.
By Finn J.D. John — February 26, 2017
It was late in the afternoon, on a late autumn day in 1918, when Oregon native Alfred Carlton Gilbert, president and CEO of a toy company called Mysto Manufacturing Company, was shown in for his scheduled 15-minute hearing before the Council of National Defense. He was greeted with weary courtesy by the Council members, all of them high-ranking members of President Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet — Secretary of War Newton Baker, of course, as well as Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, Interior Secretary Franklin Lane, Commerce Secretary William Redfield, and others.
The Council had spent the entire day listening to similar pleas from various industry groups. The country had shifted to a full-fledged war economy to meet the challenge of the First World War, and that had meant a lot of disruptions to domestic industries as factories were re-tooled to produce war materiel.
But now the Council was considering taking an additional step — a step that had Gilbert and his fellow toy makers deeply worried:
They wanted to cancel Christmas.
The reasoning behind the plan was solid and understandable. Tremendous amounts of money would change hands in the months ahead, spent to buy Christmas presents for children. If spent instead on war bonds, those millions could really help the war effort. So the Committee on Public Information prepared a publicity campaign urging American parents to “Buy bonds, not toys” for their youngsters for Christmas 1918, and the War Council prepared to place an embargo on all toy sales. Yes, Christmas would still exist … but without presents to unwrap, it promised to be a cold and lifeless shadow of itself.
Luckily for Santa Claus and other parties interested in children, the industry group Toy Manufacturers of the U.S.A. got wind of the scheme in time to arrange for a 15-minute opportunity to make the case for Christmas. To win over the Cabinet members, they turned to the president of their association, the charismatic and enthusiastic A.C. Gilbert.
They could not have made a better choice. Alfred Carlton Gilbert was an extraordinary man. Born in the 1880s in the frontier town of Salem, Ore., he entered college at Pacific University in Forest Grove, then transferred to Yale for medical school — paying part of his way through school as a performing magician.
After he earned his M.D., Gilbert’s father hoped he would move back to Oregon and establish a practice. But Gilbert had other ideas. Joining with a fellow magician, he established the Mysto Manufacturing Company, producers of supplies for professional and amateur magicians.
Then one day, in 1911, Gilbert was watching some railroad workers assemble a steel trestle, and it gave him the idea for what would become the original Erector Set.
It was the Erector set, and the various similar creative-construction toys that followed it — chemistry sets, microscope kits, and later even an atomic energy set with a Geiger counter and real uranium-238 samples — that would make Gilbert rich and famous.
In 1918, most of that success was still to come. But his toy company was already one of the biggest in the country, and his natural enthusiasm and charisma had made him a natural as a spokesman for his industry.
Still, the task that faced him was a daunting one. He had to convince the most powerful men in the United States to change their minds, to voluntarily walk away from a source of war-bond revenue that could shorten the war and could save American lives. He had to convince them that canceling Christmas for America’s children was too high a price to pay, in morale and in lost educational development, for that short-term advantage. He himself was absolutely convinced that such was the case. Now he just had to convince the nation’s war-hardened leaders.
Gilbert faced the Council members and began his pitch.
“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert told them. “A boy wants fun, not education. Yet through the kind of toy American toy manufacturers are turning out he gets both. The American boy is a genuine boy, and he wants genuine toys. He wants guns that really shoot, and this is why we have given him air rifles from the time he was big enough to hold them. It is because of the toys they had in childhood that the American soldiers are the best marksmen in the battlefields of France.”
Gilbert went on a bit in a similar patriotic vein, and then, when the time seemed right, the other toymakers who had accompanied him into the room started pulling out toys and passing them around the table.
“From the moment he opened them out onto the library table, the Secretaries were boys again,” wrote the reporter from the Boston Post, which published a big spread on the event. “Secretary Daniels was as pleased with an (Ives Mfg. Co.) Submarine as he could be with a new destroyer.”
The fifteen-minute allotment of time was soon gone, but nobody was paying attention now. The tense, somber atmosphere of a war planning meeting melted away into the joys of remembered youth.
“How the boys and girls of America would have laughed if they could only have been concealed in the room and, peeking over the tops of the davenports, seen the Cabinet playing with the toys!” the reporter continued. “Secretary Redfield wanted the steam started in one of Mr. Ritchie’s Weeden Engines as soon as he set eyes on it. ‘I learned the rudiments of engineering on a machine like this,’ he said. Secretary Lane became buried in an aviation book just issued by the McLoughlin Brothers and wanted to know where he could get more books just like it. Every one of the 40 or more toys they laughed over and played with. ‘Toys appeal to the heart of every one of us, no matter how old we are,’ said another Cabinet member.”
“And it was because they did, and because the words of a man who makes them, a man who believes in them, a man who loves them, appealed too, that the boys and girls of the United States are going to awake this Christmas morning upon a day as merry as Christmases past.”
Of course, this account of the cabinet secretaries' reaction to the deployment of the toys has to be taken with a grain of salt. Chances are high that the scene was not quite as heartwarming as the reporter made it out to be. After all, there was a war on, and stories like this one were frequently exaggerated or “augmented” to maximize their effect on home-front morale. Nonetheless, the outcome of the meeting was clear and plain: Gilbert had made his case, and there was no further talk of canceling Christmas.
Over the subsequent half-century, A.C. Gilbert would steadily move from strength to strength. His toy manufacturing business, soon renamed A.C. Gilbert Company, became one of the biggest and most successful in the world.
But that fifteen minutes in front of Woodrow Wilson’s cabinet, in which he saved Christmas for America’s children, always remained a highlight of Gilbert’s life.
By the way, although A.C. Gilbert never did move back to Oregon after he went away to Yale, his home town of Salem remains very proud to claim him as a native son. The Gilbert House Children’s Museum, located in the house that belonged to Gilbert’s uncle, has an extensive collection of the products of his company, and is well worth a visit — especially with a youngster in tow.
(Sources: Gilbert, A.C. and McClintock, Marshall. The Man who Lives in Paradise. New York: Rinehart, 1954; Vorachek, Pamela. “Alfred Carlton Gilbert,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; Gilbert House Children’s Museum, acgilbert.org)