A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 

Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

As pointed out by People, the coupon page breaks deals down by categories, like electronics, home & kitchen, and groceries (the coupons even work with SNAP benefits). Since most of the deals revolve around the essentials, it's easy to stock up on items like Cottonelle toilet paper, Tide Pods, Cascade dishwasher detergent, and a 50 pack of surgical masks whenever you're running low.

But the low prices don't just stop at necessities. If you’re looking for the best deal on headphones, all you have to do is go to the electronics coupon page and it will bring up a deal on these COWIN E7 PRO noise-canceling headphones, which are now $80, thanks to a $10 coupon you could have missed.

Alternatively, if you are looking for deals on specific brands, you can search for their coupons from the page. So if you've had your eye on the Homall S-Racer gaming chair, you’ll find there's currently a coupon that saves you 5 percent, thanks to a simple search.

To discover all the deals you have been missing out on, head over to the Amazon Coupons page.

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Jimi Hendrix’s Connection to Hogan's Alley—Vancouver's Lost Black Neighborhood

Marjut Valakivi, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
Marjut Valakivi, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

From the early 1900s through the 1960s, Hogan’s Alley—the unofficial name of Park Lane, an alley that ran between Union and Prior Streets in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighborhood—was a multicultural area that hosted an enclave of Black Canadians, largely immigrants and their descendants, who had resettled from American states to find work, generally on the Great Northern Railway system.

As a result of rampant racism and housing discrimination within the city, many of Vancouver's Black residents also migrated there, establishing numerous businesses including Pullman Porters’ Club, famed eatery Vie’s Chicken and Steak House, and the African Methodist Episcopal Fountain Chapel, the city’s only Black church at the time, which was partly spearheaded by Zenora Rose Hendrix—a pillar of the community and grandmother to legendary rocker Jimi Hendrix. Yet, despite the neighborhood's thriving business and cultural scene, city officials didn't hesitate to level Hogan's Alley and displace its many residents when it got in the way of an ill-conceived government construction project that was eventually abandoned altogether.

As national uprisings in support of the Black Lives Matter movement continue, racism has been declared a public health crisis throughout the U.S. following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and other Black citizens at the hands of law enforcement. Standing in solidarity with Americans calling for an end to police militarization, cultural advocates in Vancouver have been outraged by the harsh treatment of protesters in the United States. Growing frustration in the area has prompted a demand for the once-bustling, historic Black community of Hogan’s Alley to be recultivated as a cultural, commercial, and residential center for Black Vancouverites.

The Rise and Fall of Hogan's Alley

Ross and Nora Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix's paternal grandparents.Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Zenora “Nora” Rose Hendrix was born in the States, but became a much-admired member of the Hogan's Alley community. Nora (who, like her grandson, was a talented musician) was a cook at Vie's, a restaurant that was frequented by jazz icons including Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong during concert stops.

Jimi, who was raised in Seattle, forged a strong bond with the area during summer visits with his grandparents and via a short stint living with them, during which he attended first grade at Vancouver’s Dawson Annex School. He returned to the area in the early 1960s, where he regularly performed at local venues like Dante’s Inferno and Smilin’ Buddha.

At the same time Jimi was building his reputation as a world-renowned musician, the city of Vancouver began work on a development project to replace and expand the Georgia viaduct. To accommodate its redevelopment, which included the construction of a new interurban freeway, parts of the city would need to be destroyed. Hogan’s Alley was among the neighborhoods that city authorities had deemed disposable because, according to the Vancouver Heritage Fund, it had a reputation as “a center of squalor, immorality, and crime.”

Vancouver’s Chinatown was yet another neighborhood that was at the top of the list to be razed to make way for the Georgia viaduct and its new freeway, but Chinatown residents and the Strathcona Property Owners and Tenants Association (SPOTA) were able to effectively protest and shield that area from demolition. Though many of Hogan’s Alley’s Black residents participated in protests against the urban renewal agenda that was aimed at wiping out their neighborhood, they were unsuccessful.

In 1967, work on the first phase of construction began, effectively erasing the western half of Hogan’s Alley and forcing many Black families to leave the area in search of new housing and better opportunities. Though the building of the freeway was eventually stopped, it was too late for the residents of Hogan’s Alley.

Gone But Not Forgotten

Hogan's Alley: Then and NowMike via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In the near-half-century since the demise of Hogan’s Alley, no other cultural epicenter for Vancouver’s Black community has sprung up to take its place. Today, even within the city, the story of Hogan’s Alley and its dismantling is largely unknown—though there have been various efforts made to ensure that the neighborhood and its importance to the city’s history are not forgotten.

When the city revealed its plans to remove the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts in 2015, the announcement received a lot of attention in the area. In June 2020 activists—including members of the Hogan's Alley Society, a nonprofit organization that works to highlight the contributions of Black Vancouverites to the city’s history—held a peaceful protest wherein they occupied the viaducts in order to bring attention to the role the structures played in the decimation of Hogan's Alley. While they're happy to see the viaducts go, the protestors want to make sure that the city fulfills its promise to erect a Black Cultural Center in the structures' place and restore a vital part of Vancouver's lost Black history.

Dr. June Francis, chair of the Hogan’s Alley Society, told Global News the viaducts were “a monument to the displacement and the oppression of the Black community ... [Hogan’s Alley] was erased by the actions of the city.”

While the city promised to build a cultural center where Hogan's Alley once stood, Francis said two years have passed with no actions taken to fulfill that commitment. "I expect the city, actually, to come out with a definitive statement to these young people to say 'We believe in your future and here is our response to you,'" she said.

A Shrine to Jimi

Vancouver's Jimi Hendrix ShrineRunran via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In 2019, Nora Hendrix Place—a three-story, 52-unit, modular housing facility—was opened in the former Hogan’s Alley area to provide temporary shelter to the city’s homeless population. According to The Star, “The building will be run by the Portland Hotel Society and have a focus on supporting marginalized groups experiencing homelessness, while also including design elements shaped by Black culture.” But Nora’s famous grandson hasn't been forgotten either.

In the 1990s, a Jimi Hendrix Shrine—a small, fire engine red temple—was created where Vie’s once stood. It was an homage to Jimi’s career and the time he spent in Hogan’s Alley, complete with vinyl records, concert flyers, and letters from Jimi to his grandmother. Though the space is currently closed, its creator, Vincent Fodera, hopes to not only upgrade the shrine but to eventually have a 32-foot statue of Jimi towering over it.

While few physical reminders of Hogan’s Alley remain today, thanks to the lasting contributions of the area’s residents—including the Hendrix family—and the tireless efforts of its preservation advocates, the legacy of Hogan’s Alley’s will hopefully once again become an indelible part of the cultural fabric of Vancouver and its history.