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A Bumpy History of the Baby on Board Sign

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From the mid to late 1980s, the most ubiquitous road sign didn’t advise you to stop, obey the speed limit, or be mindful of crossing deer. Instead, it was diamond-shaped, used a black-on-yellow color scheme, and came with a stern warning for nearby drivers: There was a baby on board.

Safety 1st

The suction-cupped alerts that stuck to a car’s rear or side windows were originally designed to notify surrounding traffic that an infant was in their midst, the idea being that drivers would either slow down or take note that a fatigued or distracted parent was operating a motor vehicle ahead of them. In the summer of 1985, barely a year after its debut, the Baby on Board sign had been affixed to more than 3 million cars, with 500,000 being sold each month.

It was a windfall for former real estate investor and Brookline, Massachusetts resident Michael Lerner, who spent $65,000 of his own money to start Safety 1st, a child-focused consumer brand that marketed everything from poison alert labels to soft faucet caps so that babies wouldn’t hurt their heads in the tub. Lerner, who had no children of his own, recalled feeling anxious as he drove his 18-month old nephew home from a family gathering in a congested traffic area; he subsequently obtained the rights to Baby on Board from two sisters, Patricia and Helen Bradley, who had seen a similar sign in Europe but didn’t know how to peddle it to prospective buyers.

Neither did retailers. Lerner spent much of his time trying to convince department stores that the signs belonged in the infant section, not their automotive display: He believed the product was a safety device, not a novelty. The claim fell on deaf ears until he met with a buyer for the now-defunct Bradlees chain. The store was making an aggressive push for child car seats and felt Lerner’s pitch fit their strategy perfectly.

Once Bradlees began carrying it, other stores like Sears and Toys "R" Us followed suit—and by 1986, the distinctive yellow signs had become as common as a spare tire.

While Lerner was profiting handsomely, he was seeing only a fraction of the car sign industry's total revenue. Once Baby on Board caught on, it became easy for companies to manufacture parody replicas: Baby Driving, Grandma on Board, Ex-Husband in Trunk, and Illiterate on Bord were all snapped up by more cynical drivers who felt the original sign was silly to suggest they'd be driving aggressively if not for the warning. At one point, the knock-offs outnumbered Lerner’s sign by five to one on roads in the New York metropolitan area.

Safety 1st

Lerner and his satirists had one thing in common: road safety experts had extreme reservations about the signs, which could potentially obstruct the driver’s view through the rear window. While some states approved them providing they were stuck to the lower half of the glass, others were more aggressive. North Carolina law insisted nothing be placed on the window; Maryland had police officers giving drivers a $30 ticket for the infraction. In 1986, the Insurance Information Institute declared the signs posed a hazard for drivers who could become distracted by trying to read them, prompting a traffic accident. They also expressed concern rescue workers could risk harm by trying to extricate a baby who may not even be on board at the time of a collision.

Lerner dismissed the phantom-baby stigma, insisting the sign was designed to be removed when the infant was absent and felt it contributed to more responsible driving. While it was impossible to discern whether it actually made a difference, the parodies certainly did: Baby Carries No Cash and other jokes helped contribute to window decal fatigue, prompting Safety 1st to focus on other products like bath seats and door signs that could tell solicitors a baby was asleep inside. In 2000, Lerner sold the company to Dorel for $38 million. In 2014, the owners estimated more than 10 million signs had been sold.

One of them was purchased by a young man named Freddy Franco. According to an April 1987 report in Florida’s News-Journal, Franco was driving on Interstate 95 when a police officer spotted the sign and pulled him over. After growing suspicious of Franco’s nervousness, the officer searched the vehicle. In addition to being in violation of a state law banning anything from rear windows, Franco also had 15 pounds of cocaine hidden in compartments. There was no baby.

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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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