Even as a boy, Erector Set’s inventor seemed larger than life
A.C. Gilbert was a practicing magician good enough to astonish Hermann the Great at age 7, a world-record-holding athlete at age 17, and a born salesman — in the best “win-win” sense of the word.
By Finn J.D. John — March 27, 2017
From about 1913 on, every small boy in America knew who A.C. Gilbert was.
Somewhere on an advertising page in practically every youth-oriented magazine, his cheerful, immaculately dressed image could be seen, beaming over a neat bow tie and pointing proudly at a steam shovel, Ferris wheel, rocket launcher or some other motorized contraption built with the product he’d invented: Erector.
“Hello boys!” he’d be “saying,” in a distinctive informal-looking italic type. “Make lots of toys!”
And, in their millions, boys did. (Girls, too, although in that era of more rigidly defined gender roles far fewer girls were encouraged to take an interest in such things.)
You might think a man who made a large fortune building what had to be the iconic toy of mid-century maker culture must have had a pretty interesting boyhood himself.
You’d be right.
Alfred Carlton Gilbert was born in 1884 in Salem, Oregon, and within six years of the event nearly everyone in the city was aware of the fact. There was clearly something special about this chipper-faced youth.
He came of a family of very strict Congregationalists, so Sundays were for worship and contemplation only. But every other day of the week, young A.C. and his friends were setting the neighborhood on fire. Literally, that is. One of Gilbert’s childhood memories, as he recalled in the memoir he wrote when he was 70 years old, was building a fire department in the family barn. He cut a hole in the floor of the haymow and installed a wooden pole to slide down and cots to pretend to sleep on. He also engineered and rigged a self-opening apparatus for the barn door.
Young Alfred and the other little “firemen” would all then lie down and pretend to be sleeping on the cots, like real firemen did when waiting for a call. Meanwhile, one of their number would run out and set a brush fire for them to extinguish (luckily, none of these ever actually got out of control; if they had, Salem might remember A.C. Gilbert rather differently than it does today!)
Then the young arsonist would return and ring the alarm bell, and the boys would all leap out of their cots, slide down the pole, take the “fire engine” — a boy’s wagon with a 100-foot garden hose coiled up on it and a bell rigged to clang as it went — and race for the door. One of them would pull the lever, the door would open and out they’d go to save the day.
Young Alfred used the fire station as inducement to get the other neighborhood boys to help him with his chores. After all, many hands made light work, and they all wanted to play. The price of getting to play with Alfred’s fire station was 10 or 15 minutes of helping him stack wood — and thus an hour-long chore was reduced to a few minutes, after which everyone got to play. It was truly win-win.
The kind of salesmanship shown by this gambit was not a fluke. Young Alfred was a salesman born — which is, indirectly, how he became a magician. In those days, around 1890, there was a magazine called the Youth’s Companion. Boys and girls who sold lots of subscriptions to it earned credits that they could redeem from a catalog. Alfred enthusiastically dove into this, and after selling subscriptions to practically every other kid in Salem, redeemed his credits for a real magician’s magic set.
It must have been a pretty good magic set. Soon Alfred was the neighborhood magician. But what he learned from that magic set was, more than anything, the power of practice.
“I worked at my tricks hour after hour, day after day,” Gilbert recalled in his memoirs. “Of course, I wasn’t very good, but in time it was good enough to astound and delight my family and friends.”
It was a lesson he took to heart. From that time on, Gilbert’s life would follow a pattern: Find something worth doing, practice it relentlessly for thousands of hours, look up and realize he'd become one of the world’s best.
Of course, with magic shows, it wasn’t nearly as simple as that sounds. But the young illusionist got good enough to impress professional traveling magician Hermann the Great during a Salem show in 1891. Alfred was called upon as an audience volunteer. After having rabbits pulled out of his pockets and an egg he’d carefully placed in a box transformed into a full-sized chicken, he got his chance when Hermann the Great asked him, “Now, son, don’t you wish you could do things like that?”
“I can,” returned the bold youth, and proceeded to show Hermann his best trick: he made a card disappear. Hermann’s surprise, hammed up for the audience’s benefit, was probably genuine: back-palming a card was a professional-grade trick, something he surely didn’t expect to see from a 7-year-old boy in a remote rural outpost like 1890s Salem.
“You’re very good, son,” he told the youth. “You’ll be a great success. Come back to my dressing room after the show, I’d like to talk to you.”
Sometime after that, the Gilbert family moved to Moscow, Idaho. But Alfred came back to Oregon in 1900 to attend Pacific University in Forest Grove for his undergraduate degree.
At Pacific, he forged a reputation for mild mischief — stealing chickens to roast and eat over campfires in the woods, setting an outhouse on fire, that sort of thing.
He also forged a reputation as a world-class athlete — in no small part due to the fact that he was one of the few athletes in 1900 who recognized the value of constant practice. While a student at Pacific, Alfred set the world’s record in chin-ups and the running long dive.
He met his wife, Mary Thompson Gilbert, at Pacific. “Alfred used to court me with one arm around my waist, and the other hand in his pocket — (practicing) back-palming a half-dollar,” Mary recalled, years later.
Magic would be a huge part of A.C. Gilbert’s life story. Oregon would, too. But, ironically, he would have to move decisively (if regretfully) away from both to achieve his biggest successes.
He left Oregon more or less for good when he graduated from Pacific and enrolled at Yale for medical school. While at Yale, he broke several more world records, including the pole vault and the rope climb, and founded a company with a friend: The Mysto Manufacturing Company, specializing in magic sets for professional and aspiring magicians.
And he left magic, more or less, in 1913 when he created the iconic Erector Set — the toy that would make him truly rich and famous.
But by then, he was well settled in on the East Coast, and his old neighbors and classmates in Oregon (and Idaho) could only look on from afar, taking pride in his success and remembering the old days when the bow-tied magnate was still a scruffy, likeable lad of 10 or 12, busily lighting brush fires and pulling rabbits out of an old hat.
(Sources: Gilbert, A.C. and McClintock, Marshall. The Man who Lives in Paradise. New York: Rinehart, 1954; “A.C. Gilbert,” Salem Online History (Salem Public Library), salemhistory.net; Gilbert House Children’s Museum, acgilbert.org)
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