Last Updated on March 3, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
The question of backdrops, especially for a tinplate layout, is always a difficult question. Lots of commercial backdrops are available today, but modern backdrops often look more appropriate with scale models than with a traditional toy train layout. American Flyer’s Trainorama is a potential solution that works well with prewar and postwar style layouts.
The American Flyer Trainorama was a 3D backdrop, 9 feet long, lithographed on heavy cardstock by Niagra Litho Company. Its catalog number was 790 or 791, and it was only available in 1953. The packaging was a large paper envelope.
The backdrop featured a train station, Victorian style storefronts, power station, factory, a bridge, and a billboard set against a mountain backdrop. It was designed to be able to pass for pretty much anywhere in the United States, but it looks more like New England to me than anywhere else. Considering AC Gilbert hailed from New Haven, CT, that’s no surprise.
Being a postwar-issued product, Gilbert marketed it with its S gauge trains, but noted it would work with any scale. I’ve seen people use it with prewar Standard Gauge and it works well. With O gauge being in between the two, it would work as well. Even if it’s not strictly period correct for prewar trains, it looks the part.
Adjusting the size
Gilbert’s track radius meant its trains lended themselves well to a 5×9 table, which isn’t the most common size for train layouts today.
The Trainorama backdrop can be assembled in various ways for variety or to adjust the size to fit a smaller layout, or, maybe even combine parts from multiple sets, repeating the middle sections to extend the length beyond 9 feet. Modern hobbyists will make digital copies of some of the parts to extend it. This can get repetitive, but placing buildings or other scenic elements in front breaks up the repetition.
How backdrops help
The key to a good train layout, whether scale model or toy, is suspension of disbelief. A model will suspend disbelief longer, but even toy train layouts benefit from some finishing. Some people call toy trains a simpler approach to modeling, but you can also take the approach of surrealism or impressionism vs realism. The Trainorama fits into a less realistic approach. At first glance you can tell it’s a landscape. At second or third glance you can tell it’s a drawing or a painting, not a photograph, and not the real thing.
A backdrop extends the layout, making it look larger than it really is, and hiding the wall behind it.
It originally sold for $9.95. you’ll pay more than that now. But that’s $100 in 2021 dollars, so that may explain why it didn’t sell all that well. You can get one today for not much more than its original cost adjusted for inflation. It was sometimes bundled with sets as well, potentially to blow out difficult-to-sell inventory. Only being available one year, it wasn’t a huge seller.
Sets come up on Ebay from time to time. In pristine condition it can go for hundreds of dollars, but a lightly used one should sell for closer to $150.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.