The Council of National Defense was formed on August 24th, 1916 by President Woodrow Wilson under powers granted to the President in the National Defense Act of 1916 (PL 64-85 39 Stat. 166). Among the Council’s regulatory functions was the authority to tell American industry what they could or couldn’t make.

During the summer of 1918, the Council’s staff proposed a rule that would limit the production of Christmas gifts, especially toys. The objective was twofold: first, to redirect materials and capacity towards military items, and second, to reinforce in the civilian population a spirit of sacrifice and of ‘doing their part’.

They had not reckoned with opposition.

Alfred C. Gilbert (1884 – 1961) was a Yale graduate and athlete who shared a Gold Medal in the Pole Vault at the 1908 Olympics in London. He was also an amateur magician, and in 1907 he had started a company that sold the “Mysto Magic Exhibition” sets. Building on his success, in 1913 he added the “Erector Set” to his line, which was a best-seller for fifty years. The “Fun with Chemistry” sets, the “Microscope and Lab Set” and other ‘educational’ products followed – Gilbert eventually held over 150 patents. Later he produced the classic American Flyer series of DC-powered toy trains.

Gilbert himself lobbied before the Council against the ban on toys, especially educational ones. He carried the day and you can read more about this here.

As a child in the 1950’s, I was familiar with and fascinated by many of the Gilbert products. Sadly, all of the magic died with him, and the business was liquidated in 1967.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official living in Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and has memberships in the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Indian Military Historical Society and the Salonika Campaign Society.