Monday, January 28, 2013

Erector Set

I recently came across a few photocopied pages from one of those "The Story of My Life" books, filled out in my grandfather's hand. My aunt had given it to him when he was alive, and he proceeded to fill out only the first three pages. Although he started by answering the prompts, it soon became a list of "Quotes from My Parents," which I'll cover in a different post.

The first prompt, the only one he actually responded to, asked "What did you enjoy doing most as a child? Did you prefer doing it alone or with someone else?" Pop responded
Playing stick ball, having a catch with Dad in Prospect Park, going to Ebetts [sic] Field for the first time with Dad.

I enjoyed my Erector Set. You could build all sorts of things.
The first part was par for the course.  If you'd asked me what Pop had liked doing as a kid, my answer would have been all baseball, all the time. I'm sure I knew that that was an impossibly limited view of my grandfather's childhood, but what I knew of his younger years consisted almost entirely of stick ball, rooting for Dodgers, and playing ball in Prospect Park.

The bit about the Erector Set, though, stunned me. I don't know why it should seem so completely unexpected - Erector Sets were popular, obviously, and Pop couldn't have spent all  his free time playing baseball, but it was a part of my grandfather's childhood that stood out enough to be the only non-baseball activity that he listed and at the same time a part that I had never heard about before.

I didn't know the first thing about Erector Sets, other than that they failed to save the day in the movie The Sandlot, so I did a quick internet search and landed on the website of the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop, which has a page about the Erector Set. The Eli Whitney Museum has a collection related to A.C. Gilbert, one of the foremost toymakers of the 20th Century, whose products included the Erector Set.

1938 Advertisement for the No. 7 1/2 Erector
Image courtesy of the Eli Whitney Museum,

To be honest, part of what surprised me about reading that Pop liked playing with an Erector Set was that my entire knowledge of the toy came from those scenes in The Sandlot, and as a result, I associated it with the 1960s, and didn't realize that it had been around since my grandfather's boyhood in the 1930s. As it turns out, according to the Eli Whitney Museum, the Erector Set was invented in 1913, and was essentially already a classic when Pop was a kid. I found the image above on the website of the Eli Whitney Museum, and it reads, in part, "[Gilbert's] new 1938 Erectors have been completely redesigned and modernized." Pop was about 8 years old in 1938, so this seems to be pretty close to what he would have been playing with himself, in their apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

The last line of the ad, pictured above, reads "The No. 7 1/2 Erector shown here is $10.00. Other sets are from $1.00 to $27.50." We can put that in the context of information gleaned from the 1940 US Census, which says that my great-grandfather, John J. O'Hara, made $2,180.00 in 1939, and paid $25/month in rent. This is a crude measurement to be sure, and rendered inaccurate by the vast changes in relative valuations over the past 70-odd years, but I can't fathom buying a child a toy that cost, at the upper end of the range cited, more than the monthly rent in an NYC apartment! (It should be noted that most people in their building were paying between $30 and $45; it seems that my great-grandfather was getting a deal on rent because his father was the landlord. But still!) I can only assume that Pop's Erector Set was not the extravagant $27.50 kit that was worth more than a month's rent for his parents.

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