What ever happened to the popularity of the Gilbert Erector Set?
I think I have an answer or two.
1. The computer and the video game. (Who needs to be creative when you can kill Vampires?)
2. Plastic parts
3. The dumbing down of the components
4. Lack of emphasis by parents on having the kids actually do or build something or have to think for themselves.
6. A lot of competition from other forms of building systems like Lego and K'Nex.
None of them, as far as I know use bolts and nuts, as in real life, to fasten things together.
I got my first (and only, as a kid) Gilbert Erector Set for Christmas at about age 8 in 1946. It was the 8 1/2 size,
the one that could build the
Ferris Wheel. Late this winter (January, 2012) I read a story written by a guy of my age who told about a similar event.
I was going to tell about
that big day and how it went for me, but he beat me to it. He told about how his dad and uncles proceeded to "help"
build the Ferris Wheel so completely that he was totally left out of the process. That's exactly what happened to me!
I loved that set and built things with it almost every day for the next year, until our house burned down and that was the end of that.
In the mid '60's we bought erector sets for our 2 boys and we could already see big changes as the original Gilbert
had been bought out, then bought out again, etc..
Also the range of sizes had been seriously reduced by then. The style of the components was changing too,
I assume to make
them safer for kids and cheaper to manufacture. Lots of plastic was working its way into the system, too.
I assume that, in this downward spiral, the current owners were trying mightily to keep up with the times by adding
space stuff, etc. to the mix of projects to be made.
All bad moves as far as I was concerned, but at least the "Erector Set" still existed to allow kids to learn basic mechanics and to develop their individual forms of creativity.
Twenty some years ago, now having some new grandkids (two girls and one boy), I again went looking for Erector Sets to have here at the grandparents' house to start the mechanics and creative processes for yet another generation. All of a sudden, I realized that the Erector Sets as I knew them were almot totally gone from stores.
After some searching, I found and bought two rather simple $30 erector sets that were in the Sears catalog.
As soon as they
arrived, I looked at the back pages of the Model Building Guide and selected a LOT of extra parts to buy.
I contacted the company (then owned by the company that also owned the "Viewmaster" brand) and ordered $100 in spare parts so I'd have a lifetime supply for the grandkids.
Once those erector sets and all the parts were safely at our house and in-play by the 2 to 4 year old grandkids with
generous doses of assistance from big kids (parents), I started looking for an erector set from the period of my own
childhood, the late 1940's. This was several years BE (Before Ebay), so it was no easy task. I started looking at
antique shops and did find a few rather rusty and beat up sets and parts of sets that way.
Then one day we went to a large model railroad exposition on the east Side of St.Paul Mn. There was a guy showing off
a few of his collected Gilbert Erector Sets as well as several large models in operation. Turns out he is a major
collector and has beautiful sets of every size, right in my period, for sale.
I visited his house/shop shortly thereafter and bought an 8 1/2 from about 1950, for about $75.00. Boy, was I relieved! This set was complete and almost as good as new. This guy had original inventories for every model and knew some collectors, at a level above him, who could supply any parts that he might need to complete a restoration.
In a few weeks, I was already feeling satiated by having my new erector set. But I had already "put out the word" that I was
looking for this series of sets and leads started coming in!
Remember, that this is still about 20 years ago, roughly 1990. Within 2 or 3 years I had collected just at least one of everything between 4 1/2 and 12 1/2 from my late 30's or '40s to mid '50s period.
Well, okay, I don't have the 3 1/2 (if there ever was one), the 6 1/2 or the 9 1/2.
I even have a few doubles and one triple that I just can't let loose of.
My collector acquaintance had schooled me in pricing the sets and he gave me several good tips on cleaning them up. I also visited this collector many times to buy components needed to fill in a set.
One time I found quite a stash of parts from the 1920's or so at an antique shop for a very low price. I wasn't interested in that period, but my sticky fingers prevailed. The next time I needed parts to fill in a set, I made a very advantageous trade, since my collector friend worked a much broader range that I do.
I still get the '90s style sets out for visiting children. The cheap plastic-housed motors and controls failed
many years ago and some of the "rubber" tires and tracks have split, but the metalic parts are still as good as new.
I am so glad that I bought all those extra parts, because we can keep several active kids going all at once and they hardly ever run out of parts.
Kids don't get to play with the old '40s and '50s sets.