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Christmas of 1918 was just months away, and the United States — immersed in the war effort — was considering calling off Santa. Perhaps parents should invest in Liberty bonds rather than in toys, the powers-that-be reasoned. Why should toys be saved when so many other items were being sacrificed during wartime?
Addressing the Council of National Defense in a special meeting, an energetic businessman from New Haven, Connecticut, explained why. America, argued A. C. Gilbert, was the home of educational toys, toys that prepared our boys for adulthood. He also brought examples. Soon, the Secretaries of War, the Navy, Commerce and the Interior were playing with tiny submarines and engines, reading children's books and tinkering with A. C. Gilbert's own popular creation: the Erector set.
He was touted in the press that year as "The Man Who Saved Christmas," but as author Bruce Watson points out, A. C. Gilbert and his trusty Erector sets also saved "rainy afternoons from boredom" and "inquiring minds...from the tedium of science textbooks." From 1913, when he released his first boxes of steel girders, nuts and bolts, till his death in 1961, A. C. Gilbert was inseparable from the popular toy, and the toy was inseparable from American boyhood.
Whether as a champion pole-vaulter, a professional magician or a purveyor of constructive fun, A. C. Gilbert set out to be the very best — and encouraged the same drive in his young customers. Times and toys have changed, and Gilbert's Erector sets and science kits now sell only among collectors. But the fond memories of millions of grown-up "Erector Engineers" — including our author — live on.
Nicolo Amati (1596-1684) was the last of the highly esteemed Amati violin makers and is considered the most refined craftsman of the Amati family. He took over the business on his father's death in 1630, a time when Cremona was devastated by famine followed by the plague. His survival assured the craft of violin making in Cremona would not only endure, but also exceed the pioneering work of earlier generations. The only remaining maker of any consequence in Italy, Nicolo regained a productive shop by 1640. Over his ensuing career he trained the next generation of Cremonese masters including Andrea Guraneri, Francesco Rugeri, Giovanni Rogeri, Giacomo Gennaro, and Antonio Stradivari. Jacob Stainer may have been one of his pupils as well.
Like his forebearers, Nicolo's production led him to develop yet another Amati innovation. Known today as the "Grand Amati," this slightly larger model violin is the most desirable for modern musicians. In general, his instruments are highly regarded for their elegant quality of sound and easy response to a musician's touch. Nicolo's lifetime achievement is judged as much by the preservation and impetus he gave to violin making as it is by the fine instruments he crafted in his mind and with his hands.