Conversations in Management: A. C. Gilbert

“A boy wants fun, not education.”  

A. C. Gilbert.

GilbertDesperate times call for desperate measures (as well as inflated rhetoric) and A. C. Gilbert was laying it on thick.  He had to—Christmas was at stake! With the declaration of war against Germany, Woodrow Wilson directed a reallocation of critical resources and the retooling of American industry to support the effort. He’d created the Council of National Defense a year earlier to determine wartime priorities and it was busily doing just that. But Gilbert made toys and while that hardly qualified as a critical wartime industry it was critical to a Merry Christmas for kids across the land. What’s more, with the import of European toys curtailed, an end to American toy manufacturing would pretty much doom Christmas 1917. Now Gilbert was taking the case directly to the Council and a particularly clever case it was.

Gilbert was a good choice to make the pitch. Not only was he a manufacturer of toys, but an inventor, Olympic Gold Medalist and a medical doctor. Magic, in particular, had been a life-long interest. He’d begun performing tricks as a boy and became so proficient that he paid his way through medical school by performing in vaudeville shows. After graduation, he eschewed a medical career and instead created the Mysto Magic Company.  The company’s magic kits were an instant hit. But Gilbert saw them as more than just toys. In order to perfect a trick, a child would have to practice and persevere—values that carried life-long benefits. Following the success of his Mysto Magic Kits, Gilbert invented the Erector Set. The set contained metal girders, nuts and bolts, wheels, pulleys and a small electrical motor. It was designed to be used over and over again to build many different things. Like the magic kits, Gilbert saw the Erector Set as a learning tool. It fostered inventiveness, ingenuity and discovery. It also taught that patience and effort could produce delight.

This was the perspective that Gilbert brought to the Council.  He explained, “The greatest influence in a boy’s life are toys. A boy wants fun, not education. Yet through the unique kind of toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both.” Just in case the council members weren’t seeing the correlation between play and combat, he added, “That is why we have given him air rifles from the time he was big enough to hold them. It is because of toys they had in childhood that the American soldiers are the best marksmen on the battlefields of France.” That did the trick. The Council permitted the manufacture of toys for the duration. Reporting on its front page, The Boston Globe dubbed Gilbert, “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

One cynic commented, “It could be easily said that A.C. Gilbert was ‘The Man Who Saved the Toy Industry from Millions of Dollars in Lost Revenue.’” That may be true, but his toys and those of others remind us of an often overlooked aspect of Christmas. While many decry Santa Claus as a “lie” and rail against the “greed” of gift giving, there’s really something very good going on. Santa and the promise of gifts under the tree fire the imagination as nothing else does. The anticipation of Christmas day is as much a part of the excitement as the day itself. And the build-up to Christmas fills the spirit with wonder, hope and the sense that anything is possible. It’s like dreaming of winning the lottery and then waking up to find you actually scored big.  So go ahead and surrender to the spirit. Gilbert went to the trouble of saving Christmas, so let’s enjoy it!        —Ebert

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