The Council of National Defense was formed on August 24th, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson under powers granted to the President in the National Defense Act of 1916 (PL 64-85 39 Stat. 166). Among the Council’s regulatory functions was the authority to tell American industry what they could or couldn’t make.
During the summer of 1918, the Council’s staff proposed a rule that would limit the production of Christmas gifts, especially toys. The objective was twofold: first, to redirect materials and capacity towards military items, and second, to reinforce in the civilian population a spirit of sacrifice and of ‘doing their part’.
They had not reckoned with opposition.
Alfred C. Gilbert (1884 – 1961) was a Yale graduate and athlete who shared a Gold Medal in the Pole Vault at the 1908 Olympics in London. He was also an amateur magician, and in 1907 he had started a company that sold the “Mysto Magic Exhibition” sets. Building on his success, in 1913 he added the “Erector Set” to his line, which was a best-seller for fifty years. The “Fun with Chemistry” sets, the “Microscope and Lab Set” and other ‘educational’ products followed – Gilbert eventually held over 150 patents. Later he produced the classic American Flyer series of DC-powered toy trains.
Gilbert himself lobbied before the Council against the ban on toys, especially educational ones. He carried the day and you can read more about this here.
As a child in the 1950’s, I was familiar with and fascinated by many of the Gilbert products. Sadly, all of the magic died with him, and the business was liquidated in 1967.
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