The holidays are a time of remembering. Each Thanksgiving, the Eli Whitney Museum reaches deep into New Haven’s attic, to unpack and display a tradition built here more than 60 years ago. Just after World War II, The A.C. Gilbert Company introduced its American Flyer Trains. Gilbert trains, with their lively movements, their carefully crafted sound, their bright lights, the cedar scent of their smoke, won an enduring place in our collective memory. New Haven built an icon of the holidays.
The Eli Whitney Museum collects and studies the products and legacy of A.C. Gilbert and his company. Between 1909 and 1964, the Gilbert Company was the premiere producer of learning toys in the world. Its showroom in New York, the Gilbert Hall of Science, was an emporium of experimental learning and a forerunner of the modern science museum. The Eli Whitney Museum’s workshops still nurture that experimental learning.
Alfred Carlton Gilbert was drawn to New Haven by Yale, especially by Yale's preeminence in sports and by New Haven’s lively vaudeville scene. Gilbert won a Gold Medal for pole vaulting in the 1908 Olympics. He earned living expenses performing magic on New Haven’s stages. And he studied Medicine at Yale’s Sheffield Science School. His gift for magic led to a part time, then full time partnership with John Petrie producing stage tricks for magicians in New Haven and New York. Riding a train to New York, Gilbert saw inspiration in the new bridges and towers. He sketched the nuts, bolts, and girders of a model steel construction system he would call the Erector Set. It caught the spirit of the age. With it, Gilbert built a company that shaped the imagination and invention of three generations of American boys.
Gilbert’s American Flyer Trains were the last of his great product lines. Three thousand men and women worked at Erector Square in Fair Haven. Gilbert’s two-railed, realistically detailed locomotives were a spunky David to the industry Goliath: Lionel. The Gilbert line grew with great promise through the mid 1950’s until it encountered an unconquerable future: television. Television stole time and attention; it sold disposable toys. It substituted passive entertainment for active learning. Gilbert produced trains for just 20 years.
Still American Flyer Trains endure. Each year the Museum lets children run locomotives and rolling stock that their grandparents might have played with. That’s a tribute to thoughtful engineering, excellent workmanship, and Walter Zawalich. Zawalich is a scientist at Yale who restores and maintains the trains and who has trained Museum apprentices to assist in their care. With a few modern parts and ample ingenuity, this gifted volunteer seems to keep the trains in perpetual motion.
Wooden trains to construct: $10
Saturdays: 10am – 3pm
Sundays: 12 – 5pm
With special viewing hours from 12 to 5pm on
Monday 12/22, Tuesday 12/23, Wednesday 12/24, Friday 12/26,
Monday 12/29, Tuesday 12/30, Wednesday 1/31, Friday 1/2