G.C. of the Santa Barbara shop Random has a toy train set by A. C. Gilbert Co. In the world of objects, each "thing" is a unique idea; an object is the exercise of visual imagination. Mechanical sets made for boys in mid-century America are solid, material, industrious examples — none better, perhaps, than the American Flyer train set.
Although Alfred Carlton Gilbert (1884-1961) didn't invent the toy train, he revolutionized it. In 1938, he acquired the rights to the American Flyer from W.O. Coleman and moved production to New Haven, Conn., adopting a 3/16 scale while keeping the three-rail O gauge track. G.C.'s set follows World War II, as his is a two-rail S gauge track. Gilbert's revolution was his trains' realism; American Flyers looked like real rail cars.
Gilbert was a true Renaissance man, as emphasized in his interestingly titled biography, "The Man Who Changed How Boys and Toys Were Made: The Life and Times of A. C. Gilbert, The Man Who Saved Christmas." Gilbert's stroke of genius was his invention of the Erector Set in 1913, springing from his imagination as he witnessed the construction of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. Yet because the U.S. needed factory space for World War I war production, the government banned such toys. Gilbert lobbied (and won) against this, hence he was "The Man Who Saved Christmas" for WWI-era boys.
His business acumen was acute, producing 30 million Erector Sets by 1935. His biographer's assertion that Gilbert "changed how boys were made" refers to Gilbert's inventions of do-it-yourself mechanical toys for boys, such as microscopes and chemistry sets. He advocated the teaching of "innovation" in American schools, which he found lacking, so he honored the importance of "invention" by founding the Gilbert Hall of Science on Broadway in New York City in 1941. Although impelled by Gilbert's spot-on capitalism (he sold his products from the museum), this was one of America's first museums of science and technology.
Gilbert was the impetus behind further halls of science: a "Gilbert Hall" in Miami on Flagler Street in 1943; another in Washington, D.C., in 1944; and a Chicago Hall on Michigan Avenue in 1953. Gilbert halls were devoted to massive, elaborate and imaginative American Flyer layouts. By visual example, they taught young boys mechanics, the American landscape and the glories of American technology.
New York's multi-storied hall featured three continuous room-sized displays of "Flyers" on the first floor: the Small 3-Rail, the Railroad Empire and the Super Layout (bridges included). The second floor was devoted to merchandising directed at young visitors whose parents opened wallets, a prescient coup for Gilbert. These halls kept the American Flyer in the public eye during yet another "toy" prohibition during WWII.
If a boy couldn't visit the Gilbert halls, there were always the Gilbert catalogs, which were mailed nationwide, featuring the halls' Flyer layouts. An extravagance beyond boys' reach, these unattainable (for most in the 1940s) trainscapes sweeping through the American landscape were picture-perfect visions of the model train. An aging aficionado on www.AmericanFlyerDisplays.org remembers, "For most of us (boys), it was a glimpse (of magnificence) and we didn't know what we were looking at, as the photos were never labeled. It was just the most fantastic layout, what we wished we had (ourselves) to run our trains on."
Gilbert's early sets and publications for boys reveal the breadth of his interests, as well as the ubiquitous blessing of never growing up. An early interest in magic led to the mechanical: Gilbert Mysto Magic (1913), Gilbert Chemical Magic, Handkerchief Tricks for Boys (1920), Gilbert Hydraulic and Pneumatic Engineering, Knots and Splices with Rope Tying Tricks, Magnetic Fun and Facts, and Fun with Chemistry.
The Collector's Guide to American Toy Trains gives the value of G.C.'s locomotive alone at $920. But the value of the American Flyer is also the legacy of boys' education, building realistic mechanical objects in realistic American geography, technology American-style, 1920-50.
Gilbert led a full life; not only did he found a brand of industrious play, but he epitomized the American boy. At the age of 16, he broke the record for consecutive chin-ups in 1900, and at 22, he set records for the pole vault, and tied for gold in the pole vault at the 1908 Summer Olympics. In Gilbert's 1954 autobiography, "The Man Who Lives in Paradise," the paradise is eternal boyhood. A true American Hardy Boy who was also a brilliant industrialist, Gilbert is remembered by legions of grown men whose hobby is model trains.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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