2011 retail tinplate finds, at Big Lots and Shack

If you’re a tinplate fan like me, it would behoove you to make a trip to Big Lots sometime this week. Big Lots has a selection of building-shaped cookie tins priced at $5 each. The buildings include a town hall, post office, bakery, and general store. Additionally, my old friend Radio Shack is selling a building tin full of AA and AAA batteries for $10 until December 10 (it’ll be $20 after that).
The classic tinplate makers pretty much ignored commercial buildings when they were making accessories–as best I can tell from reading prewar literature, a station surrounded by a couple of buildings was meant to represent a town, unlike the postwar approach where hobbyists tried to represent more of the town–so if you want to replicate what’s available to postwar fans in the Plasticville line and its competitors, you pretty much have to turn to cookie tins. The tins are inexpensive when you can find them, but generally speaking, only a handful turn up each year so it can take several years to accumulate enough buildings to populate a layout.

The tins generally measure around 3 inches deep, 5 inches wide, and 5-8 inches tall, depending on whether they’re intended to represent a 2- or 3-story building. The doors and windows tend to be somewhere between O and S scale, so they look fine on an O27 layout. The selected compression on the building depths is considerable, but you frequently don’t see that anyway, and we’re talking tinplate, not proto:48 here. Precious little tinplate was even close to proper 1:48 scale anyway, and much of it was grossly undersized.

The styling on the tins from Big Lots looks reasonably close to that of Marx to complement its trains. It would be fine with older tin-litho trains too, from the likes of Lionel, Ives, American Flyer, Bing, and others. The Radio Shack tin doesn’t fit in quite as nicely, and the modern styling of the Radio Shack store doesn’t exactly go with tin litho trains. I’d prefer a representation of a 1920s/1930s store like Hallmark did a few years ago rather than a 2010s store. If your train layout doesn’t need a 2010s Radio Shack, put the tin at the back of the layout and turn it around, where you’ll find a bicycle shop.

It’s possible to populate a layout cheaply with some patience, using these tin buildings and whatever diecast vehicles appear in a given year that are period-acceptable, along with some vintage trains. Although tinplate has some cachet of being a wealthy person’s pursuit, many tinplate outfits are worth less than a modern starter set today. Some considerably less–a Marx 590-series locomotive is worth around $10, and many of the common 6-inch freights are worth less than that, so you can assemble a simple Marx tin litho consist for less than $50.

It’s entirely possible to get started with modern scenic details and replace them one by one over the years with something more period correct, if desired.