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Trivial Pursuit Trivia

During a game of Scrabble in December of 1979, Canadian journalists Chris Haney and Scott Abbott decided to create their own board game. They sketched out the basic concept in a single evening, and they doodled several game board designs before settling on a "ship's wheel" with six spokes leading to the center winner's circle. Keeping with the wheel theme, they also decided that the game tokens should be round and should double as "scorekeepers" "“ that is, the tokens should immediately reflect the player's status without having to refer to a separate score pad.

Putting a team together

trivia-teamHaney and Abbott had no prior retail experience, much less any knowledge of promoting and selling a board game, so they enlisted the help of Chris' brother, John, and an attorney friend, Ed Werner. In January 1980, the four formed Horn Abbot Ltd.; the company name was based on Chris Haney's nickname, "The Horn," and an abbreviated spelling of Scott's surname.

Once Horn Abbot was incorporated and actually started investigating the ins and outs of selling a board game, the partners realized that they needed about $75,000 to create a prototype game board, the necessary game pieces and the question cards. They enlisted the help of family members, friends and co-workers in order to raise the necessary capital, offering them shares of their company in exchange for their investment. A lot of folks naturally turned them down (how many of us have heard from friends and relatives with a "million dollar idea"?), but eventually they managed to convince 34 people to buy into their dream. Four years later, those 34 investors were each receiving five-digit dividend checks.

Designing on a budget

trivial-pursuitThe quirky, archaic images that gave the original Trivial Pursuit game board its unique character came from the mind of graphic designer Michael Wurstlin. Wurstlin was 18 years old and unemployed when Horn Abbot approached him to use his artistic expertise to create not only a game board, but also a logo and a design for the question cards. Wurstlin took the job because his unemployment insurance had run out and he desperately needed the $1,000 they offered him. His budget for the project was almost non-existent, which is why he turned to archival art books that provided free clip art.

When he turned in the finished product, Haney and Abbott asked whether he'd prefer five shares of stock in their company over the mere $1,000 they'd originally contracted for. Wurstlin only capitulated and took the stock after much cajoling of the "What are you, chicken?" variety. He earned enough from his investment to found Wurstlingroup, a very successful Toronto-based marketing company.

Keeping up with demand

game-piecesOne of the many problems Horn Abbot encountered when Trivial Pursuit began gaining popularity was manufacturing the components quickly enough to meet demand. In 1983, only one company in the U.S. had the special card stock (10 point Carolina Coated Bristol, covered with clay on both sides) used to print the question cards, and Federal Paper Board could only afford to dedicate 20% of their machine capacity to the Trivial Pursuit job, since at the time they also were the major supplier of the nation's cigarette cartons, record album covers and laundry detergent boxes. Delivery of completed games to distributors was often delayed as a result.

They had better luck with the injection molding company that produces the game tokens. Northern Plastics in Elroy, Wisconsin, had three presses and four full-time employees when Horn Abbot came calling in 1983. Horn Abbot advanced Northern the cash to buy the plastic and the molds. One year later, Northern had 140 employees and eight presses working seven days per week.

Coming up with the questions

Ever wonder where the Trivial Pursuit folks get their ideas for all those questions (6,000 per edition)? Many of the topics come from the recesses of their complex minds, of course, but they also got some outside help, as Fred L. Worth discovered. Worth was a fellow triviot who'd published three exhaustive volumes of a "trivia encyclopedia" prior to 1981. Worth knew that legally one could not "own" facts of public record, but one could copyright the form of one's own material.

Worth used a common mapmaker's trick to trip up anyone who dared copy information from his books verbatim—he purposely included an erroneous fact. In this case, his "bunny" (as such red herrings are called in the industry) was to state that the first name of TV's Columbo was "Philip."

(Peter Falk's character's first name was never actually mentioned during the run of the series.)

Lo and behold, a Trivial Pursuit question in the Genus Edition included the Columbo question along with the "Philip" answer. Worth jumped on Horn Abbot like a rabid wolverine and on October 23, 1984, filed a $300 million lawsuit against them. Judge William Byrne tossed the case before it came to trial, stating that Trivial Pursuit was "substantially different" than the Super Trivia encyclopedia.

"You always get the nuts coming out of the woodwork who say they've invented this before," patent attorney Jim Carson stated in a 1984 interview (his firm represented Horn Abbot at the time). One such "nut" was Buddie Miller of Trinidad and Tobago, who invented a board game called Brainstorm in 1977. Brainstorm was a trivia game of sorts, and Miller's contention was that because his game featured cards printed with questions, Horn Abbot had copied his idea. He wasn't able to pursue the case very far legally, because he'd only copyrighted his game in Trinidad and Tobago. How similar are the two games? Check out Miller's website (yes, he's still pretty bitter to this day) and make your own decision.

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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
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The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

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