December 25, 2013

"Even now in my mind’s eye I can see a series of ads in Boys’ Life from the A. C. Gilbert Company of New Haven, Connecticut, promising the most wholesome joy from their ingenious chemistry sets, microscope kits, and world-famous Erector Sets."

"These last were bolt-together toys from which you could make all manner of engineering marvels—bridges, industrial hoists, fairground rides, motorized robots—from little steel girders and other manly components."
These weren’t things that you built on tabletops and put in a drawer when you were finished playing. These were items that needed a solid foundation and lots of space. I am almost certain that one of the ads showed a boy on a twenty-foot ladder topping out a Ferris wheel on which his younger brother was already enjoying a test ride.

What the ads didn’t tell you was that only six people on the planet—A. C. Gilbert’s grandsons presumably—had sufficient wealth and roomy enough mansions to enjoy the illustrated sets. I remember my father took one look at the price tag of a giant erection on display in Younkers toy department one Christmas and cried, “Why, you could practically get a Buick for that!” Then he began randomly stopping other male passersby and soon had a little club of amazed men. So I knew pretty early on that I was never going to get an Erector Set.
Writes Bill Bryson in his memoir about growing up in the 1950s, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid." That's a passage I found just now as I search for "Christmas" in my ebooks. There's also this other one about a toy he did get, which in fact "was a game that all boys were compelled to accept as a Christmas present at some point in the 1950s," Electric Football:
It consisted of a box with the usual exciting and misleading illustrations containing a tinny metal board, about the size of a breakfast tray, painted to look like an American football field. This vibrated intensely when switched on, making twenty-two little men move around in a curiously stiff and frantic fashion. It took forever to set up each play because the men were so fiddly and kept falling over, and because you argued continuously with your opponent about what formations were legal and who got to position the final man, since clearly there was an advantage in waiting till the last possible instant and then abruptly moving your running back out to the sidelines where there were no defenders to trouble him. All this always ended in bitter arguments, punctuated by reaching across and knocking over your opponent’s favorite players, sometimes repeatedly, with a flicked finger.

29 comments:

Freeman Hunt said...

I went back and forth on getting my sons their first Erector Set this year. Decided to wait a year when they'll find it easier to use. I don't know what the old ones were like, but I've heard that the new ones require you to get the nuts extremely tight if you want them to stay put.

Broomhandle said...

The old ones were easy to use. I was building random stuff when I was 6. Start with Tinkertoys, move on to the Erector Set. I'm sure there were mega-sets like Ann notes, but the average one was a compact desk-top affair

SteveR said...

I never had the football game but had friends who had it. Bryson's description is about right and within a short time we would end up outside, playing Army or other games of real or simulated violence. Good times.

Scott said...

I played with an Erector Set when I was a kid -- or at least part of one. It belonged to my older brother. When I was old enough to start playing with it, half the pieces were missing.

The sets were sort of a knockoff of the Meccano Set; the invention of which predated the Gilbert version by ten years. Meccano eventually bought the rights to the Gilbert Erector Set name. You can buy the Erector version on Amazon.com. They still have lots of little parts that toddlers can swallow or plug their orifices with.

YoungHegelian said...

All that stuff was relatively expensive even when we were kids. Lego blocks were always pricey. And the Tinker Toys and Lincoln Logs -- all made out of solid wood. I also had toy soldiers (both French & American made) that were solid cast metal!

Try finding toys like that now! They would cost as much as a Buick!

Scott said...

BTW, Meccano, which was a British invention, is now made in France by a Japanese company. Go figure.

Broomhandle said...

And chemistry sets were fairly serious back then. You could whip up some toxic shit. Like everything else now, they've been dumbed down and made environmently friendly (i.e. rendered boring and harmless).

Ann Althouse said...

There's some funny stuff about Lincoln Logs in that Bryson book. Peeing on Lincoln Logs.

I Have Misplaced My Pants said...

And chemistry sets were fairly serious back then. You could whip up some toxic shit. Like everything else now, they've been dumbed down and made environmently friendly (i.e. rendered boring and harmless).

You should read Oliver Sacks' memoir Uncle Tungsten. His was a large family filled with utterly brilliant individuals and as a child in 1940's England he was allowed to fiddle to his heart's content with incredibly dangerous chemicals that he purchased at the corner chemist.

Deirdre Mundy said...

My house is a Lego house. All 4 of the big kids ask for nothing but Legos at birthdays and Christmas, and the toddler hoards duplos.

Building toys are the best toys ever. The kids can make anything they want, play with the resulting vehicles, figures, and buildings, and then take everything apart and build something new.

Every kid can build a unique world. And, taken apart, the blocks take up very little space. Best toy ever!

I'm just waiting to sell a novel or hit the lotto, so we can get some of those Lego robotic sets.

jimbino said...

I had an erector set and tinker toys and a serious chemistry set. We did make gunpowder.

Nowadays, at least in Texas, it's a crime to possess an Erlenmeyer flask without a permit from the Department of Public Safety!

http://www.crscientific.com/texas-glassware.html/

The Drill SGT said...

You should read Oliver Sacks' memoir Uncle Tungsten. His was a large family filled with utterly brilliant individuals and as a child in 1940's England he was allowed to fiddle to his heart's content with incredibly dangerous chemicals that he purchased at the corner chemist.

Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a Chem. Engr. I had the basic chemistry set, and then bought mail order items from the druggist. Lots of nitrates and chlorates :) Good enough to win the Chemistry prize in our HS Class (67) even though I had blown my knee out playing baseball in 66 and my Chem teacher sent assignments and ingredients home for me to work while my knee was in a hip cast.

Vietnam got in the way of my Chem E. When I got back I didn't want to start over, so switched to econ.

Original Mike said...

Chemistry set, microscope kit, Erector Set, the vibrating football game. I had all of those.


virgil xenophon said...

Being born in 1944 I had everything but the chemistry set--tinker-toys, Lincoln Logs, Gilbert Erector-set (the large one) and don't forget the trains. I had an Gilbert American Flyer (the class made before the brand was cheapened )viz the more popular Lionel brand. It's a collectors item now. My son inherited it and grew up with it also. And lots of the solid cast metal soldiers as well.. A few have even survived..

virgil xenophon said...

PS: Oh yes, the microscope kit as well..

YoungHegelian said...

Remember Rock-em Sock-em Robots from the mid-60's. "He knocked his block off!"

Mostly plastic & not terribly well made, but what a toy for little boys & their buddies or brothers! Hours & hours of robot on robot mayhem!

madAsHell said...

Lye and aluminum.

We would load a large coke bottle with lye, and then drop in the aluminum. A ballon was placed over the top of the bottle. The resulting reaction produced hydrogen.

When the reaction reached equilibrium, we would pull the ballon, and tie it shut with a string. The string would be soaked in kerosene, and lit with a match.

The balloon would be released, and then explode at altitude. We could have burned down the entire neighborhood, but it's Seattle. Nothing burns.

Just the same, I never taught my son that little trick.

Skookum John said...

When my son was young we got him a few Rokenbok sets. These combine some of the coolest features of Erector sets, Lego, Tonka trucks, and games like Chutes and Ladders or Mousetrap. They can build amazingly elaborate and creative structures. Spendy, but well-made and worth it.

http://www.rokenbok.com

David Davenport said...

No mention of BB guns or .22 rifles.

Creeping pee cee-ness ...

EDH said...

"Electric Football" was one of the toys that was a precursor of today's virtual reality.

Limited by available technology, however, these products of the imagination tended to be crude first approximations, often laughable in retrospect.

By comparison, table hockey worked a better. "Electric Football" was essentially all marketing and packaging, as anyone with practical experience playing the game will attest.

But it's hard to say it was a complete rip-off.

As toys they did instill a yearning to move the technology further in the imaginations of many young people, some of whom would would later create today's virtual tecnhnology.

madAsHell said...

No mention of BB guns

I did BB guns until I proved my father correct.
I didn't lose an eye, but I damn near lost an eardrum.

virgil xenophon said...

B.B. Guns? Oh hell yes for this 50s kid. Had the typical Daisy Red Ryder gun, And are we to get into the various Western cap-guns and holster sets?

Original Mike said...

""Electric Football" was essentially all marketing and packaging, as anyone with practical experience playing the game will attest."

Yeah, it looked cool, so you'd try and play it for awhile, but there was no control so in frustration you put it away in the closet. A few months later, you'd pull it out because it looked so cool ...

eddie willers said...

And chemistry sets were fairly serious back then. You could whip up some toxic shit.

Mine came with a nice chunk of asbestos.

For mercury I had to go to the druggist. Sure made those dimes shiny for a while.

One I haven't seen mentioned were these plastic rocket ships you filled with water then attached to a handheld pump. After pumping until your arm fell off, you would release the catch and the rocket would shoot skyward. More of less. Many times it would fail and get you (or even better....your sister) soaked to the bone.

Broomhandle said...

Oh yeah, the little white rocket with baking soda and vinegar propellant. Of course it was the 4th of July that provided the raw materials for enhanced explosives ( no res fireworks back then). How I escaped childhood with ten fingers and both eyes, I don't know.

Dopey said...

Electric football -- If I remember correctly there was some kind of kicker/passer as well. The secret to winning was the Statue of Liberty formation.

The Gilbert chemistry set inspired a lifetime fascination with demolitions and explosives, something which served me well in the Army.

My Erector set came with an AC motor which could be used for cranes and draw bridges. Taught me about wrenches and screwdrivers and the lesser parts of hardware stores where you could get more 3-32 screws and nuts. Also I learned eyeball engineering.

American Flyer trains in the immediate postwar era were outstanding and much better than the more popular Lionel.

jimf said...

Earlier this month, I visited the Nuremberg Toy Museum...among the Meccano Sets and similar was a 1910 toy...a Van De Graff Wimshurst generator and accessories...that I would have loved to have as a kid.

Joe said...

I never liked erector sets. It was tremendously unclear how to make anything in the pictures (even assuming you actually had all the parts), taking them apart was an even bigger pain and they slashed shit out of your hands and knuckles.

Bill R said...

There was also a Girder and Panel Building set. This had little I-Beams that snapped together to form a frame and plastic panels that snapped over the exterior. You could build a realistic looking skyscraper pretty quickly. There were also road pieces so you could circle your creation with superhighways.

I loved it.

I loved my Gilbert microscope too. I sliced up some celery very thin as the instructions said and could actually see living cells. Very cool.

And of course the chemistry set had magnesium. An interesting metal that when ignited, burned like the sun.

It was fun being ten years old n 1961.