The Erector Set at 100

Eli Whitney Museum

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2013 Exhibition

The Erector Set at 100

What to Make of It?

Thumbnail of The Erector Set at 100 project

Open Weekends from November 29 to January 26
Saturdays, 10am – 3pm and Sundays, 12pm – 5pm

With an Opening on
November 29th, 12pm – 5pm

And Special Holiday Hours on
Dec 23, 12pm – 5pm
Dec 24th, 12pm – 3pm
Dec 26, 27, 30 & 31, 12pm – 5pm

One hundred Holiday Seasons ago, a 29 year old brought a product to market that would become an American icon. It would also redefine the Holiday Season.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert, a 1909 Yale graduate, had lingered in New Haven to produce and sell magic tricks. In 1911, he watched the steel tower construction to electrify the New Haven Railroad’s access to the new Grand Central Terminal. Steel and electricity were reinventing America. Gilbert invented the Erector Set to capture that spirit.

The Erector Set, a metal nuts and bolts construction set that captivated the hearts, hands and imaginations of three generations of American boys. Its success asked fundamental questions. Can a toy be a learning tool? Can advertising persuade a society to invest in play? Can an expensive toy be a popular toy? Are there boys’ toys and girls’ toys? Is toy safety overrated? Can tinkering change the way we think?

Thanks to a grant from the Connecticut Humanities as part of its year-long Connecticut at Work initiative, on November 29, the Eli Whitney Museum will open a celebration: The Erector Set at 100. The Erector Set’s last dominant decade was the 1950’s. That era’s generation of enthusiastic Erector builders is growing smaller. But the lessons of the Erector Set are still relevant. The exhibition is subtitled: What to Make of it? to connect the project to the MAKE Movement. The MAKE Movement is a contemporary collection of tinkerers, hackers, and inventors who take pleasure in finding new ways to make things work. The MAKE Movement traces its origins to the emergence of Popular Mechanics Magazine which, like the Erector Set, was born in the first decades of the 20th century.

The exhibition features a timeline of the Erector Set’s evolution with its interconnections to the major events of the 20th century. There are Erector Sets with familiar and unfamiliar pieces. There are samples of the advertising that show Gilbert as one of the early masters of brand management. There are motors, pulleys and gears. Visitors can try their hand at mastering the speed, direction and shape of movement. There are nuts and bolts and girders. Visitors can construct a Gilbert box girder that will become part of a skyscraper that will climb 25 feet over the course of the exhibition. There is a practical beauty in this toy that still works a half-century past its most glorious days. The Erector Set remembers the thousands of capable hands which stamped, plated and packed its parts with pride in Fair Haven’s Erector Square.

The Erector Set at 100 joins Mr Gilbert’s Railroad, the Eli Whitney’sMuseum’s annual American Flyer train exhibition, opening at noon, Friday November 29th.

These Gilbert celebrations will be open Saturdays 10-3 and Sundays 12-5 through January 26.

Admission is free. Donations welcome. Consider contributing those old Erector Set parts you thought you might never find a home for.

Thank you to Judy Sirota Rosenthal for photographing the exhibition.

Support from Connecticut at Work, an initiative of the Connecticut Humanities, made the Erector Set at 100: What to Make of It? possible.

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was 29 years old in 1913. He had graduated from Yale in 1909. He had abandoned the career in medicine that he prepared for to found the Mysto Magic Company, with John Petrie. Gilbert traveled to his magic showroom in New York City on the New Haven & Hartford Railroad. The steel catenary towers that would electrify underground access to the new Grand Central Terminal had inspired Gilbert.

His Mysto Company would introduce The Erector, a steel construction toy, for the 1913 Christmas holidays. By 1916, Gilbert bought out his partner, renamed the enterprise The A.C. Gilbert Company, and charted the rise of an American icon.

Who was A.C.Gilbert? Gilbert was a competitor. He was drawn to Yale by its athletic preeminence. He was a wrestler, a gymnast, and most prominently a pole vaulter. He won a Gold Medal in the London Olympics of 1908.

Gilbert was a magician. He had practiced magic since his childhood. He performed on stage at New Haven’s Hyperion Theater. The stage presence he had developed would be a signature dynamic of his success. A.C. Gilbert was a great salesman – a salesman with deep personal integrity. He loved the satisfaction of doing things with mastery. He invested that possibility and passion in every toy he sold.

There is a Creation Myth.

[In 1911 looking out the train’s window, I thought...] how fascinated boys might be in building things out of girders. And later…I tried to put four girders together to make a square girder like those on the railroad. It wouldn’t work until I made a lip along the edge…This little invention was probably the single most important factor in the success of Erector. (From The Man Who Lives in Paradise, A.C. Gilbert, p. 119 – 120)

Those words are true…and artful. Gilbert doesn’t claim to have invented the steel construction toy. Frank Hornby was already marketing his fine English Meccano Sets when Gilbert visited London in 1908. Meccano was advertising in America and had inspired other construction sets. What Gilbert claims is the style and realism of the lifelike girder.

In 1900, marketing pioneer, J. Walter Thompson identified the art of trademark advertising. A.C. Gilbert invented a construction set with style and ambition. He invested his personal style and ambition in The Erector Set. Steel and electricity were transforming America. The Erector Set could transform young hands and minds. That conviction, that message was a new idea in selling. A.C. Gilbert had invented a Brand.

Serendipity. A.C.Gilbert, his wife, Mary, and their just born daughter, Charlotte, lived in New Haven’s Westville. Ground was broken to construct the Yale Bowl which would become the world’s largest arena since the Roman Colosseum. The new electrified cathedral of transportation, Grand Central Terminal, would dispatch 100,000 passengers to New Haven on a fall Saturday when the Bowl opened in 1914. An endless line of electric trollies moved that hoard to Westville. A new age of transportation arrived at Gilbert’s front door.

In New York, the Woolworth Building, a temple of commerce, all steel and stone, and electric elevators announced the new shape of cities: tall. Henry Ford had just perfected his assembly line. Thomas Edison had 20 more years of inventions to contribute. Orville Wright, 13 years older than Gilbert, watched still primitive airplanes find their first role in combat. Alexander Graham Bell celebrated construction of the first transcontinental telephone lines. 1913 was an age of heroic inventors.

Leaps in farm productivity and concentration of coal fired manufacturing jobs in cities had redefined America as an urban nation. The Boy Scouts of America had been founded, in 1910, to preserve the frontiersman values of the 19th Century. A.C. Gilbert would embrace the spirit of the 20th Century.

Germany and England dominated the world’s toy manufacturing in the first decade of the 20th Century. In 1913, embers of war smouldered Yale Bowl opening program 1914. The ensuing Great War would embroil Germany and England and open the marketplace for a young American.

“Most important, it had a motor.” A.C. Gilbert

In 1913, hand cranks powered gramophones, ice blocks preserved food, few carriages were horseless, and windmills pumped water for farms. However, electric trolleys had just begun to stretch our cities and electric elevators had begun to lift sky lines. It was the threshold of the electric age.

Gilbert’s Erector was “electro mechanical.” Its heart was a small electric motor...the first motor a generation would touch. The A.C. Gilbert Company would become a leading producer of fractional horse powered motors. Gilbert would patent motor designs, gearboxes and improvements to manufacturing technique. But his important invention was an idea:

Trust the hands of children to master and apply new technology.

Large electric motors found work early lifting elevators, moving trains and replacing the massive steam engines that distributed power in factories on leather belts. The generation that played with the early Gilbert motors went on to electrify smaller and smaller tasks, with greater flexibility and precision. This story of young hands learning to apply power is also a narrative of the power of children’s learning. Invention often begins in play.

Nobody had ever advertised a five-dollar toy before in this country, and it really took courage. People in the industry, who thought a dollar was a lot of money for any toy, believed we were crazy. But it worked, and started a new trend. A.C. Gilbert

That’s $5 in 1913: a week’s wage for some laborers. A.C. Gilbert had less expensive sets, but he aimed to sell a more expensive toy, in larger numbers, than others had ever managed. He knew it would require persuasion. His message to Boys: The Erector Set will give you years of fun. His message to parents: It is a long term investment in your son. Gilbert didn’t invent advertising, but he applied it inventively.

In all of these promotions, Gilbert remained the center. His portrait, his signature, his story, his voice spoke with the intense focus of a great man speaking personally to just one boy.

toy [ME toi’] noun: a trifle or diversion; something for children to play with. Webster.

In 1913, A.C. Gilbert changed the definition of toy. Of the toys in the market before his, Gilbert would use the word gimcrackery – a showy object with little value. Gilbert knew his product had value.

In 1918, The Erector Set got a geeky sibling: The Gilbert Chemistry Set – and the identity crisis deepened. Should the Gilbert line aspire to academic significance?

An alternate identity appealed. The magazine Popular Science Monthly had been around for a generation printing academicarticles. In 1915, new editors shifted its content and style. It became, well, popular. The new Popular Mechanics Magazine and its offspring The Boy Mechanic spoke to the active curiosity of a generation inspired by the self-trained giants like Edison. Correspondence schools proliferated to profit from this hunger for knowledge and self-betterment.

In 1920, Gilbert introduced the Master Hand Series, concept rich books written by experts. Each included ambitious and expensive apparatus. No hint of a toy, and not much fun. The series flopped.

Gilbert concluded that he should return to his first instinct. The Erector Set spoke to curiosity and the natural urge to build. It did not teach solutions; it encouraged young hands to discover solutions, to solve problems by experiment. Teaching toys seemed doomed to a narrow market. Learning toys promised to redefine the power of play. Gilbert knew that.

A generation of boys knew that.

The better question: How did you learn with an Erector Set?
The answer: Like an art or a sport – with practice.
Remember: Gilbert was a master of the art of magic and a disciplined athlete. He understood the power of practice.

The Erector Set educated the senses: eyes, ears and all the facets of touch. Mastery of the Erector Set evolves like a language. You develop a vocabulary of rudimentary connections. At first you express dutiful copies. You move to complex structures. Then you make bolder and bolder improvisations, some practical, some poetic.

These are essential lessons:

Visual Decoding
Gilbert wisely chose to instruct with few words. His careful illustrations, usually in one view, conveyed dense information: from the simple inventory of parts to the intricate prerequisite order of assembly.

The nuts and bolts of it: making efficient connections, often in tight spaces at challenging angles.

Haptics or Touch
Fingers master measurements: the solidity of a connection, the weight of a piece to be balanced, the speed and power of a motor, the rigidity of a girder.

Mechanical Vocabulary
The 8 1/2 Erector Set had 94 distinct parts, each with a specific or multiple purposes. This taxonomy was so elaborate that most learned it by eye, not the formal names in the parts inventory.

Time & Persistence
Assembly errors were inevitable, but always reversible...with enough time. It takes a lot of hours to learn that it takes a lot of hours to build things.

The Erector Set was often a first valuable possession. The larger sets came in substantial boxes that helped with care. But experimenting competed with keeping. Parts drifted. Sharing was difficult. And all things built had to be unbuilt: adult dilemmas all. Adult lessons.

Erector Square, A.C. Gilbert’s trackside headquarters in Fair Haven, produced far more than the Erector Set. Erector Square built other learning toys, a full line of household appliances, and two models of the American dream.

To the nation, Gilbert presented the Erector Set as an instrument of aspiration, an investment in the future. With hard work, every boy can become a builder, a designer, and inventor, and maybe a captain of industry like A.C. himself. The dream of unbounded self improvement.

In New Haven, Erector Square represented a different dream. Into the 1950s, there were a dozen manufacturers equal or larger in workforce, equal or larger in renown. But few workplaces earned the loyalty and respect that Erector Square commanded. Just as Gilbert’s young customers knew that he cared about their future, Gilbert’s workforce – 3000 men and women at its peak – knew that he cared about each of them and their family. He was a forward thinking employer with, for example, a maternity policy in the 1940s. Yes, he discouraged unions. But he did so with fair wages and benefits. He promoted from within. There were personal touches: company talent shows and picnics at Paradise, his game preserve in Hamden, milk from his farm for the company cafeteria, and even his hunting expedition films at lunchtime. Yes, in critical language, The A.C.Gilbert Company was a paternalistic workplace. But to his coworkers, as he called them, Erector Square meant an esteemed leader, security, positive morale, and a sense of community. The American dream of opportunity, respect, and belonging.

No part of the Erector Set’s conception and marketing is more obsolete than its salutation: Hello Boys!

The greeting was not an accidental figure of speech. Once Gilbert used Hello Boys and Girls! He concluded early that Erector Sets were not for girls. The language, images, content and spirit of the Erector Set were addressed not just to boys, but to Real Boys. Real boys loved invention, action and adventure. Presumably they read, if anything, Tom Swift novels, not The Wizard of Oz.

Was Gilbert a product of his time? Certainly America had not yet accepted women as qualified to vote in 1913. Automatic stoves and refrigerators were still rare domestic conveniences. Homemaking required full time labor.

There were signs of change. The suffrage movement that would win the vote was well established. The Girl Scouts of America had been founded to stretch the horizons of young women. And the electric motors that were the heart of the Erector Set were about to promise relief for domestic labor. A.C. Gilbert’s Polar Cub appliance line was devoted to one tier of women’s liberation. Gilbert was attuned to the changing culture of boys; girls, not so much.

Gilbert admired the strength of some of the new women: the socialite Electra Webb who accompanied him on hunting trips and the young designer Ann Farrell whose work he credited by name in his catalog; but he never challenged stereotypes in toys.

The Erector Set evolved continuously between 1913 and 1967. Some but not all of its faults were eliminated. There were flaws in usability, which mattered to young hands. And there were safety flaws that those young hands barely pointed out to their parents.

There was irony in the awkward nuts, the iconic, but haphazard P33 screwdriver, the maddening flat wrenches. Think of trying to enjoy a fine steak with a frail plastic knife and fork. The box girder required ample practice to master and was often ignored. Not every design worked as illustrated.

Safety flaws may be in the eye of the beholder. To a modern protective eye, the abundant sharp edges are unfamiliar. In a world that encouraged children to carry pocket knives, those steel edges were unremarkable. Gilbert 110 volt electric motors were the real thing. They could solve real problems but also afflict real damage. However, into the 1930s, the raw power of electrification was installed with great confidence in the common sense of a population that had survived the hazards of open gas lights, coal stoves, and the fist generation of automobiles.

The Erector set left scars that are worn now with pride. They harken to an age of trust and independence. The scars are small lessons that wisened hands for bigger risks. Some of those lessons are impossible to pass on. Few grandfathers would leave young grandchildren alone in a room with a beloved A 49 motor.

Many forces weighed against The A.C. Gilbert Company’s survival.

  1. When Stability becomes Inflexibility: Gilbert entered the 1950s with a management team formed in the 1930s, men reluctant to change.
  2. Succession: A.C. released the Company to his son too late with too little confidence. A.C. junior died young. There was no leader.
  3. Television: Television was a thief of time. By 1954, it was clear that Gilbert toys were a product of the radio era.
  4. Plastic: Molded plastic toys were cheap and disposable. A few plastic Erector parts began to appear in 1953. Erector plastic was never elegant.
  5. Safety: by 1957, child safety regulations had taken the fire out of the Chemistry Set line, and other key Gilbert products.
  6. Marketing Shifts: Gilbert rose in the department store era. The economics of selling to shopping center chains was unfamiliar.
  7. Dwindling Balance: Gilbert’s important appliance line was unable to compete with the giants (like GE) that entered that market after World War II.
  8. Social Change: Broad social change altered the workforce and the structure of all manufacturing in New Haven.

From the Yale Daily News, December 17, 2013, an interview with Bill Brown by Patrick Lynch. (Videos available in viewer, above.)

Two videos shot at the Eli Whitney Museum explore the contributions of Yale alumnus A.C. Gilbert and today's "maker" movement.

In "Erector Sets, model trains, and the new "maker" culture," William Brown, director of the Eli Whitney Museum in New Haven, talks about the museum's current exhibit on 1909 Yale graduate Alfred Carlton Gilbert and his famous Erector Sets, toy train sets, and how such activities have fostered creative invention in generations of children.

The Erector Set at 100: What to Make of It features a timeline of the Erector Set’s evolution, and how it connects with the major events of the 20th century. There are Erector Sets with familiar and unfamiliar pieces, as well as motors, pulleys and gears. Also on view are samples of the advertising showing Gilbert as one of the early practitioners of brand management.

The museum's exhibition The Erector Set at 100: What to Make of It also connects the project to the 'maker' movement, a collection of modern-day tinkerers, hackers, and inventors who take pleasure in finding new ways to make things work.

With thanks to Connecticut Humanities, The Eli Whitney Museum has collected and indexed classic advertising catalogs published by the A.C. Gilbert Company. Take a look at our Gilbert Catalog.

In 2011, the Eli Whitney Museum honored Herb Pearce, a New Haven real-estate legacy and a part of the A.C. Gilbert Company story.

Erector 1913

Coney Island Carousel <i><small>1913</small></i>

Coney Island Carousel 1913

Derrick <i><small>1913</small></i>

Derrick 1913

Dirigible <i><small>1913</small></i>

Dirigible 1913

Elevator Tower <i><small>1913</small></i>

Elevator Tower 1913

Ferris Wheel <i><small>1913</small></i>

Ferris Wheel 1913

Ferry Bridge <i><small>1913</small></i>

Ferry Bridge 1913

Fire Truck <i><small>1913</small></i>

Fire Truck 1913

Freight Trains <i><small>1913</small></i>

Freight Trains 1913

Gantry Crane <i><small>1913</small></i>

Gantry Crane 1913

Honeymoon Bridge <i><small>1913</small></i>

Honeymoon Bridge 1913

Inclined Rail <i><small>1913</small></i>

Inclined Rail 1913

London Bridge <i><small>1913</small></i>

London Bridge 1913

Machine Shop <i><small>1913</small></i>

Machine Shop 1913

Phonograph <i><small>1913</small></i>

Phonograph 1913

Sewing Machine <i><small>1913</small></i>

Sewing Machine 1913

Trolley <i><small>1913</small></i>

Trolley 1913

Victoria Bridge, South Africa <i><small>1913</small></i>

Victoria Bridge, South Africa 1913

Wind Mill <i><small>1913</small></i>

Wind Mill 1913



Gantry Crane <i><small>1938</small></i>

Gantry Crane 1938

Ferris Wheel <i><small>1938</small></i>

Ferris Wheel 1938

Carousel <i><small>1938</small></i>

Carousel 1938

Wind Mill <i><small>1938</small></i>

Wind Mill 1938

Ferris Wheel <i><small>1964</small></i>

Ferris Wheel 1964

Helicopter <i><small>1964</small></i>

Helicopter 1964

Erector Set parts <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Erector Set parts <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Tower <small><i>jsr</i></small>

Tower jsr

Ferris Wheel <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Horse-Drawn Carriage <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Drill Press <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Erector Set Motors <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Accordion joint <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Parachute Drop <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Tower <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Tower (detail) <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Polarity experiment <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Interactive Models  <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Interactive Models (detail) <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Interactive Models (detail) <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Erector Motor of Unusual Size <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Working Models <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Working Models <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Waking Beam Engine <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Parts Chest <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Parts Chest <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Parts Chest <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Aeroconstructor <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Rocket Ride model <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Front Wall display <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Right Side of Display <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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Claude Shannon's Juggling Machine <small><i>jsr</i></small>

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 <small><i>jsr</i></small>Sewell's Artificial Heart Pump

jsrSewell's Artificial Heart Pump

Battleship <small><i>jsr</i></small>

Battleship jsr

Erector Square: Manufacturing Community

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Douglas W. Rae is the Richard S. Ely Professor of Political Science and Management at the Yale School of Management. His book, City: Urbanism & Its End (©2003) looks at the social geography that shaped manufacturers in New Haven like the A.C. Gilbert Company. Professor Rae will speak on the dynamics that made New Haven a good place to make things.

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Hello, Girls!

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A century ago, A.C. Gilbert, Yale, Shef. 1909, introduced the Erector Set, a steel construction set that would become an American icon. The Eli Whitney Museum will be hosting an open exhibition exploring that legacy during December and January, funded in part by CT at Work, a Connecticut Humanities initiative.

The Museum has asked two former Presidential Fellows, Tammy Pham and Mariel Goddu, to host: Hello Girls!, an evening for mothers and daughters to take over these classic Gilbert toys and ask how to choose toys to open horizons.

Learn More...

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