Alfred Carlton Gilbert first came to Connecticut from his native Oregon at the age of 18 in 1902 when he arrived at Yale University.
The impact that he made in New Haven — first as an athlete and then as an inventor and as a businessman — was immense. Nevertheless, he will be best remembered as “the man who saved Christmas” at a time when both the country and the world needed the spirit of Christmas to cope with the horrible reality of millions dying in World War I.
As an accomplished athlete, A.C. Gilbert set a world record for consecutive chin-ups — 39 — in 1900. He also set two world records in the pole vault; in fact, he won a gold medal in the pole vault in the 1908 Olympics in London!
In the year after the Olympics, Gilbert founded the A.C. Gilbert Toy Company in 1909 in the Westville section of New Haven, not far from the Yale Bowl. At first, Gilbert manufactured items used by magicians. Soon, however, his company evolved into an enormous producer of toys, spurred on by his ingenious inventions and the immense popularity of the Erector Set — first introduced to the world in 1913. It was inspired by looking at the rails of the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad Company.
The invention and production of the Erector Set in New Haven was significant for a number of reasons. First, it is believed to have been the first toy that was widely advertised in print media. Second, its enormous popularity made Gilbert by far the largest employer in New Haven, bringing about 3,000 to 5,000 jobs to the city for decades. In fact, the Gilbert Company was among the first companies in the United States to provide a benefit package for its employees.
Though the company later expanded to produce small appliances as well as chemistry sets, trains, and microscopes, the Erector Set was its most popular and profitable product, bringing joy to the kids who loved to play with it. As a matter of fact, much to the delight of A.C. Gilbert, the Erector Set was actually used by two Yale New Haven doctors — William Sewell and William Glenn — in 1949 to build the first artificial heart pump. Furthermore, as seen in the recent movie about Dr. Jack Kevorkian called “You Don’t Know Jack” with Al Pacino, Kevorkian’s first assisted suicide machine employed an erector set.
A.C. Gilbert himself took great pride and joy in making toys for children. The title of his autobiography published in 1954 — The Man Who Lives In Paradise — hints at the happiness that Gilbert derived from his work. In fact, it was this delight he took in making children happy that drove Gilbert to argue against the Council of National Defense’s proposed ban on the production of toys during World War I.
Arguing that children most need the distraction and joy of play during stressful times, his passionate defense of continued toy production during wartime succeeded, and the press began referring to him as “the man who saved Christmas.” A film dramatizing Gilbert as the savior of Christmas debuted on Dec. 15, 2002, starring Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander as Gilbert. Simply called “The Man Who Saved Christmas,” it is a Christmas movie worth watching.