For some guys, the more high-tech, the better. But for others, old-school is where it's at: crackly vintage vinyl, antique threads, or '60s-era Jeeps. That list often includes classic toys and hobbies, too, and for those who have a soft spot for such things, this year marks a key 100th anniversary. It was a century ago that A.C. Gilbert, the guy who did just about everything – magician, med-school grad, Olympic pole vault gold medalist, manufacturer – first unveiled his game-changing construction toy, the Erector set, at the 1913 New York Toy Fair. It was a revelation and handily upstaged every other toy out there on its way to turning our country's young whippersnappers into master builders.
Charles Nelson, a member of the A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society, a national group of collectors who focus on the products produced by A.C. Gilbert Company (which also included chemistry sets, microscopes, and American Flyer trains), became interested in Erector sets as a kid and immersed in them as an adult. His thing is restoring sets to their original form. So far, he's only ever found one complete set, a 1926 No. 7, which builds a steam shovel and 533 other models (no, not at the same time). "I was walking through an antique store and asked my usual question: Any Erector sets? And got the usual response of 'no,' " Nelson recalls. "As I was walking out, I noticed this wood box on the floor, and it was a complete '26 No. 7. It was being used as a doorstop!" An electrician by trade, Nelson is quick to note that the bigger sets had electric motors. Kids were able to build bridges that move and cranes with magnets to pick things up.
Open, say, a vintage boxed set like the Trail Blazer No. 8, commonly known as "the set that builds the zeppelin." Inside you'll find the iconic metal Erector pieces, tools, and hardware, and the airship's cloth cover, emblazoned with the Erector logo. Many such sets can be found on Ebay, but some are so sought-after that they only move from collector to collector via private deals – just like famous pieces of art. One kit is the most substantial Erector ever, the 1931 No. 10, advertised as "The Climax of Erector Glory." (Uh, paging Dr. Freud. . . .) It allows you to build, among other things, a steam shovel, a truck, a locomotive and tender, as well as a five-foot-wide Ferris wheel; it weighs an astonishing 150 pounds in its box. The Climax set was $69.75 when it first appeared, but since then people have paid as much as $45,000 for one. "It's the holy grail," Nelson says.
These days new Erector sets are sold by the European firm Meccano, but they only bear a passing resemblance to Gilbert's impressive classics. Much as it pains us to say it, turns out they don't make 'em like they used to.
More information: Vintage Erector sets and parts can be found on online auction sites such as eBay and e-commerce sites such as Etsy, but do your homework to ensure that what you're seeking is authentic. The A.C. Gilbert Heritage Society also has a for-sale section on its website at acghs.org for members. If you want to see vintage Erector sets up close and personal and you're in Chicago on Saturday, July 13, then go to the Society's 2013 National Convention at the Holiday Inn Chicago-Elk Grove, where Erector's 100th anniversary will surely be celebrated.