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By James D. Spina
This story actually begins a long time ago in my home town New Haven, Connecticut. I was about four years old. My Dad (“Big Jim”) and his older brother, Giuseppe (Joe), were going to attend a Yale football game at the world famous Yale Bowl. We arrived at Joe’s house to get ready to go to the big game, but I was in for a surprise.
It was too early to leave and Joe began to show my Dad his latest gadget. Joe was an inventor and held more than one patent on things ranging from eyeglass attachments that prevented the specs from sliding down one’s nose to a fishing lure that would not catch in the weeds. The latest gadget was Joe’s version of a clock radio. Joe’s son, Ken, and I listened intently as he described how the little white radio worked. It was a wonder for 1943 and I remember not quite understanding what it actually did. I do remember the feeling of awe that I had for my Uncle Joe’s creativity.
My surprise was that I was not going to the game because I was too young. It would be Dad, Joe and Ken. I was to be babysat by my Aunt Yola. Needless to say, I was furious! And this is why I remember the day and the amazing new clock radio so well.
Let’s fast forward to 1987 in West Palm Beach, Florida. This was my home at the time and my cousin Ken was showing me some of the parts that his Dad had used to manufacture the “Spin-a-Lure”, the weed-free fishhook system. The name was a take-off on the family name Spina. As we poked around in the garage, I spotted what looked a Christmas tree stand sitting on a shelf. I asked Ken if it was a stand. He nodded, pulled it down and plugged it in to show me how it worked. It slowly rotated, played a one verse version of “Silent Night” and another musical piece that I did not recognize. The volume of the songs flowed out at a very pleasant level.
It was then that I noticed the label. It read “A.C. Gilbert New Haven, Connecticut”. I could not believe my eyes! I had been collecting Gilbert stuff for many years. As a youngster I even had the chance to bike to the Gilbert factory and look into the large round windows street-side at all the latest toys but I had never even heard of the Christmas tree stand much less having the chance to see one in action.
I quickly thought of several questions. How did Ken get it? Did he still use it at Christmas? How old was it? Was it safe? Ken answered every question. It was safe (even with the frayed cord, a cosmetic problem), he stilled used it during the holidays and it was made before the war. Then the bomb shell was dropped. It was a gift to Joe Spina from AC himself because Joe had worked on the design for Gilbert! Ken did not recall if he worked as an employee or contract person. Unfortunately, we will probably never know although my guess would be as a contractor, based on my uncle’s entrepreneurial bent.
The stand itself was pricy at the time it was advertised. The flyer from about 1935 lists it at $15.50, a princely sum during the Great Depression. There are two toggle switches on the rear of the sheet metal housing. One operates the lights and the other, the rotation of the tree. The worm gear that drives the motion is quite heavy duty and was probably outsourced to a company such as Snow and Nabstead, a well know gear shop in the area. It reminds me of the worm drive of the later American Flyer trains that we know so well but much larger. The music box is ingeniously integrated with the drive train that moves the tree. The stand itself is not very heavy, weighing four to six pounds including the wood base. It is very neat to watch in action.
A number of years flew by and I’d taken a new job in Chicago. The Christmas tree stand was temporarily forgotten but never left my long term memory. One day I received some very sad news from Florida. Ken Spina had passed away. Several months later I learned that some of Ken’s things were being dispersed. I called and asked about the old Christmas tree stand and was told that no one in the family was interested and it was mine if I wanted it. I said “yes” and it was shipped to me in Maryland just before Christmas, 2007.
When it arrived, I inspected it and gave it a whirl. Of course, typical of vintage Gilbert things, it worked quite well. I decided to open the motor housing box to see what made it tick. I had planned to give the motor and the gears a cleaning and lube job if they needed one. As I disassembled it, I looked for dates or patent numbers but to no avail. After photographing the works, I put it back together and went out to find a man-made “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree. Even though the information that I had obtained about the stand said it would hold one-hundred pounds, I was skeptical especially after I had noticed a brazed repair to the cast iron cup that held the tree. I found what I needed at a local hardware store, returned home and set the tree up in the stand. It blazed with lights and sparkled with vintage decorations. When viewed from the street it was glorious and, with the window ajar, “Silent Night” flowed out to people walking by. The second tune still remains a mystery.
I’m grateful that I was able to obtain the stand because it’s an important part of the Spina Family History. I’m also pleased to add to the body of knowledge of Gilbert’s genius and skill in bringing “fun things” to American families over the years by showcasing this rare item. No one really knows how many were made or if there were only prototypes. For example, the base of the one I own is painted the same green as the motor housing. The description in the catalogue tells us that the base was mahogany in tone. Another rumor is that your name had to be “Gilbert” to have been given one of these. The pictures that follow tell the rest of this story.
Enjoy the trip back in time!
Author’s Note: I wish to thank my fellow Gilbert collectors (Bill Bean, Barry Lutsky and “Lazer” Jay Smith) for their input and leads as I began to research the stand. A special thank-you goes to Dan Yett who provided me with invaluable insights and a copy of the Gilbert catalog showing the stand offered for sale. Thanks guys!