You know what your train layout needs? More commercialism. Or maybe not, but here’s why you may want an American Flyer whistling billboard anyway, even if you’re trying to make your layout an escape from the less happy real world.
Competitors to the American Flyer whistling billboard
Lionel put its electromechanical whistle in the locomotive tender, then put a relay in the circuit so the motor would only respond to DC power. You can run AC and DC along the same pair of wires at the same time. Of course, Lionel patented it, and that left their competitors looking for another way to add sound effects. Marx put their whistle in a train station. American Flyer put it in a billboard, and gave it catalog# 577.
Using a Flyer or Marx whistling accessory means your trains can whistle even if you don’t have a whistling tender for them.
American Flyer 577 whistling billboard
The first whistling billboards came out in 1939, and were available until 1942. They typically advertised the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus or Royal typewriters. The billboard had a printed design and sat in a white metal frame on a green metal base.
After the war, production resumed. The ads changed a bit over the years, with other companies wanting a royalty for using their trademark and images, so post-war billboards after 1950 had ads for American Flyer trains or Erector sets. There’s no point in paying to advertise someone else’s product when you can advertise your own product for free.
Cost reduction measures
Early whistling billboards have lights. In 1950, Gilbert introduced a nonlighted version, the 577NL, which sold for 20 percent less. In 1951, the 577NL received a new catalog number, 566, and Gilbert continued selling it until 1955.
In 1956, the metal frames gave way to plastic. This didn’t have much effect on the operation, but it does change the vibe of the layout. The earlier metal billboards don’t look out of place on a pre-war layout, but the later plastic ones can look like a anachronism on a tinplate layout. They blend in fine on a postwar layout, of course.
Tin or plastic?
Pre-war operators will sometimes use and American Flyer whistling billboard on their layout, even a later post-war billboard, because it still looks the part. A steam locomotive won’t look out of place, and neither will an Erector Ferris wheel.
They’re a popular accessory, because they add sound to a layout and they don’t take a lot of space, and you can put them in a corner that doesn’t have any other use. They were popular when they were new as well, so they are not expensive today. You can probably pick up an example that works for around $30, and a fixer upper might run half that.