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This Month in Business History

The Man Who Saved Christmas

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Grace Coolidge, Santa Claus, and children next to Christmas tree. 1927. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When World War I broke out in 1914, President Wilson decided that the U.S. would not at that time join the Allies but would instead remain on the sidelines. However, in 1916 he did establish the Council of National Defense which was composed of government officials that would coordinate resources and industry if necessary.

When the U.S. did eventually declare war on Germany in April 1917, the Council went into action. At that point the Council turned much of the country’s manufacturing infrastructure toward making what was needed for the war and among other things, banned the manufacture of nonessential items. Unfortunately for toy manufacturers, they didn’t produce items that were directly needed for the war. While they were worried that this could put them out of business, many Americans thought this would doom Christmas for America’s children.

Alfred C. Gilbert was determined to do something, because he felt toys were still important, even in the face of a world war. Gilbert was the founder and president of the A.C. Gilbert Company (sometimes seen as The Mysto Manufacturing Co.), known for making the ERECTOR set. He was also chairman of the Toy Association’s War Service Committee, which meant he was in a position to do something.

When Gilbert was asked by the manufacturers to speak on their behalf before the Council, he arranged a meeting. In preparation, he gathered a sampling of the toys from various manufacturers to bring with him. This turned out to be a very smart decision.

An article in the Boston Post in 1918 recounts the meeting held in the office of the Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels. This is what Gilbert was reported to have said:

the greatest influence in the life of a boy are his toys.

A boy wants fun, not education. Yet through the kind of toys American toy manufacturers are turning out, he gets both. The American boy is a genuine boy, and he wants genuine toys. He wants guns that really shoot, and 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. (October 25, 1918, p. 24) 1

He continued by saying:

America is the home of toys that educate as well as amuse, that visualize to the boy his future occupations, that start him on the road to construction and not destruction, that as fully as public schools or Boy Scout system, exert the sort of influences that go to form right ideals and solid American character. 2

Then Gilbert pulled out all the toys he had brought with him. Secretary of Commerce, William Redfield, was reported to have been enamored with a steam engine saying “I learned the rudiments of engineering on an engine like this.” Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Knight Lane, picked up an aviation book. It seems that bringing the toys was just what was needed. As Gilbert said, “The toys did it.”

That Boston Post article included a photograph of Gilbert with one of his famous ERECTOR sets that included a caption which says in part:

The man who saved Christmas for the children 3

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  1. Cabinet Members Become Boys Again. Boston Post (October 25, 1918) 24.Back to text
  2. Cabinet Members Become Boys Again. 24.Back to text
  3. Cabinet Members Become Boys Again. 24.Back to text