HELLO, BOYS! MAKE LOTS OF TOYS!
by William "Bill" Bean
I remember it well. Roberta, my sister, and I had been up since 5:00 am - about an hour after Mom and Dad had finished decorating the tree, setting up the Lionel trains, and putting out the presents. Roberta and I knew they must have been exhausted and needed some rest, so we decided, with yuletide love in our little hearts, to let them sleep for as long as we could stand the Christmas morning suspense - which turned out to be about another fifteen minutes.
Finally the grand moment arrived! Dad was parked on the couch in a battered old bathrobe that he dug out of the closet every December twenty-fifth, and Mom had just returned from the kitchen with a cup of reheated coffee. It was time for the wrapping paper to fly!
By now (my eighth year) I had learned to always go for the big present first, right after the stocking had been emptied and quickly reviewed (usually candy, a tangerine or two, and some hokey little plastic toys that lasted for two days, tops). Dad brought it over and sat it on my lap. ("Don't start tearing the paper 'til I get the movie camara going...") It was really heavy! What could be in there???
Now, I knew full well what it was. I had been making subtle hints since Halloween about what I really wanted (Hey, Dad! If I had a REALLY BIG ERECTOR SET, I wouldn't keep losing your tools...) The size and shape of the package was a dead give-away. But for us kids, it was a major strategic mistake to let your parents know that you knew. We had to act surprised, so as not to disappoint them. Parents love it when they think that they pulled off the Big Surprise. I know, because now I'm one of them.
A quick peek through the corner of the reindeer-covered wrapping paper confirmed what I already knew. There was a shiny red metal box in there! A split second later it lay in grand splendor before me. Quickly but carefully I opened the lid. Trays of parts with gleaming girders that reflected the colored lights from the Christmas tree dazzled my eyes. A "How to Make 'Em Book" (Yes, yes...I NEED to know how to make 'em - and the answers are right here...) was packed under the trays. Parachute men (just see how they float), merry-go-round horses, and an electric motor (Need a mountain moved? Well, just show me where to plug in my Erector Electric Engine....) were stored, ever so neatly. And look! There were even more parts packed under the trays - all so neat and organized on a blue cardboard insert. Cans and cans of little parts, too. Why, anything was possible with this beauty.
Now the big delemma! Should I take the parts out and actually try to build something? Or should I leave the set alone, and simply relish the joy of owning it for a while. After all, once I unpacked the parts I knew I would never be able to put them back like this again.....
The delemma was resolved later in the day with the arrival of my Grandparents. My Grandfather, Pop, and my Dad immediately decided to build the gigantic parachute jump model, the toughest in the instruction manual. Now, right in the front of my "How to Make 'Em", Mr. A C Gilbert himself, THE INVENTOR OF ERECTOR told us to start with the simple models and work up to the big ones. I tried to explain that to Dad and Pop, but they paid no attention. They were too busy arguing about whether the model needed a wood base ("like it shows in the picture" said my Dad) or not. They spent the rest of Christmas day struggling over this project while I looked on, constantly suggesting that we all build the "flat truck" model pictured on page one. Anyway, by dinner time they had abandoned the undertaking. My family's first attempt at constructing this six foot monster climaxed at about eighteen inches.
I still have that old set. It's a No. 10 1/2 Amusement Park set which builds the merry-go-round, parachute jump, giant power plant, and oh so many other wonderful things. Today, the manual is worn and tattered, some of the horses have no legs, and the parachutes are long gone - victim of my rocket boy days. When I first became reinterested in Erector, I planned to restore this set - to replace the missing and broken parts, etc. But I never have. Seeing it the way it is now reminds me again and again of all the fun I had playing with it, way back when.
My interest in old toys has always been strong. I started collecting Lionel trains when I was in college. Then one day in the early 1980's, I happened upon a 1915 No. 4 Erector set at an Antique show. I marveled at how different it was from the set I had as a child. Actually, the only proof that it was an Erector set was from the decal on the lid.
Anyway, that was the beginning of a wonderful new direction in collecting for me. I started looking for Erector at every flea market and antique show I could get to, and I bought nearly every set I found. The more examples I studied, the more questions I had. When was it made? Why the "1/2" in some of the set numbers? Which was the biggest? When was the first? What did it look like when it was new? What else was there? On and on the questions went, and NO ONE KNEW THE ANSWERS!! Bit by bit I became aquainted with other toy collectors who were interested in Erector, but we were few and far between. We shared insights, exchanged information, and slowly the picture of the rich fifty-three year history of one of America's greatest toys began to come into focus. And I began recording what we had learned in a series of articals which were published in the "Train Collectors Quarterly". We have come a long way since then, and today the story of Erector Sets, sorely neglected for decades, can be told with a high degree of accuracy and completeness.
All this prompted Bruce Greenberg of Greenberg Publishing to contact me in 1991 to write a book about Erector Sets. With his encouragement, Volume I of the Erector Guides was published in 1993. It covers the history of Erector between 1913 and 1932. Four years later I finished the manuscript for Volume II, and it was published by Kalmbach Publishing (who had since aquired Greenberg Publishing) in 1998. Volume II covers the history of Erector between 1933 and 1962.
I am an active collector. Since I retired last year, I am able to devote a great deal of time and energy to organizing my collection, which was featured in the Smithsonian Magazine in 1999. I also have plenty of time to discover more of the history of my favorite childhood toy, and the learning never stops. The most enjoyable moments of collecting for me are the times when I find a set that I didn't know existed, especially when I can add it to my collection.
I am also very involved in the A C Gilbert Heritage Society, and served last year as the National President. I urge every Erector enthuiast to become a member. It is the THE organization to join if you are interested in Erector and other Gilbert products. Dues are $20 per year, and members receive a quarterly newsletter. We also hold a national convention each summer, and these are great events with lots of buying and selling, as well as the viewing of rare items on display.
Thank you for visiting my website. I hope you find something you like. In the meantime:
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