I’ve been buying up Lionel 184 bungalows lately. I picked up my first at a toy show, and probably paid too much for it considering its light didn’t work (and yes, I asked). But then I picked up some 1980s reproductions at an estate sale at a fantastic price, so that more than made up for me overpaying for my first. These tiny houses look great on a layout and they aren’t hard to fix.
Lionel made the 184 from 1923 to 1932 for separate sale, and continued to sell them bundled with scenic plots through 1942. They are only two and a half inches wide and four and a half inches deep. You can cram them into some tight spots on a layout. I think they’re a bit undersized even for O27 trains, but they look nice. The lithographed versions look especially nice, which is ironic. Joshua Lionel Cowen despised lithography.
Lionel only made them for 19 years but several companies reproduced them. Frank Bowers, a Lionel collector from Philadelphia, made them in the 1980s. MTH has been cranking out reproductions of them since at least the early 1990s. The originals aren’t rare and the reproductions certainly aren’t. There is no good reason to pay more than $35 for a repro. If prices on reproductions are high, just wait a few months for the market to settle back down again.
Not just for Lionel
Lionel wasn’t the only company that sold the 184 bungalows. Occasionally, 184-like houses with American Flyer’s name on them and a catalog number of 2184 turn up. They aren’t clones. Lionel and its competitors may not have liked each other very much, but they did source parts and even finished products from one another. The American Flyer-branded 184 clones were indeed made by Lionel and resold by American Flyer.
So even if your main interest is in non-Lionel trains, it’s perfectly OK to use 184 bungalows on your layout.
Lionel 184s were undersized for their era, almost comically so, considering they were sold alongside Standard and O gauge trains. They weren’t intended for OO or HO scale, but they’re much more appropriate for those sizes. In OO, they represent about a 700 square foot house if we’re generous and count the attic as a second floor. In HO scale, they’re about 900 square feet.
As you can see from the photo with a 1:64 scale vehicle parked in front of it, these houses are garage-sized.
Given that the smaller Lionel O gauge sets were also comically undersized, they look pretty good together. They look even better with Marx 6-inch trains. I think Standard Gauge trains overwhelm them, but it’s up to you. Not getting too wrapped up in scale is part of the tinplate way.
Working-class houses were much smaller in the early 20th century, so these tiny bungalows do fit the spirit of the times. And the small size has some upside. You can plant a lot of them in an 8×8 layout to represent a densely populated area, with whatever 184s you can find in your residential area and tin commercial buildings in your commercial district.
How to open a Lionel 184 bungalow
The Lionel 184 is easy to open to change the light bulb once you know the trick. Don’t try to lift the roof up. Just slide the roof forward or backward. Depending on the house’s condition, it may slide more easily in one direction or the other.
When you put the roofs back on, it also doesn’t matter which way you put them back. This means you can rotate the roof around if you want the chimney in a different place to make the houses look a little less uniform. Yes, sometimes chimneys were in the front of the house during that era. I see them in the front in some of the older working-class neighborhoods in and around St. Louis. If it was more practical to put the chimney in the front for any reason, they did it.
Repair a Lionel 184 that doesn’t light
My Lionel 184, as I mentioned earlier, wouldn’t light up. The 184 just needs two wires; a hot wire soldered to the center of the light socket, and a common wire attached to the bracket with a small machine screw. Someone had rewired mine, but the insulation was crumbling away so I rewired mine again.
Someone had spliced wire to the soldered wire, so I just removed the other wiring and spliced again, since the soldered wire was still in good shape.
Mine still wouldn’t light, so I tested it by touching the common wire from the transformer to the side of the bulb socket. It lit. So I unbent the tabs holding the bulb socket to the bracket and gave them a twist. This restored conductivity, and then the bungalow lit properly. Touching up at least one of the connections with a bit of solder would have been a good idea.
I made no effort to hide my wiring. Given the size of the windows, even the huge blue wire nut isn’t easy to notice unless the house is way up at the front of the layout. If I were concerned about the wire nut, I could paint it a neutral color to make it blend in.
Adding a light to a Lionel 184 bungalow
If you have an unlit 184 and want to light it up, you can purchase a Lionel 184 light bracket. Reproduction brackets usually have a threaded end with a nut for the hot wire and a machine screw to attach the common wire. Attach the bracket to the slots in the base, attach two wires and run them through the holes in the base, then run those wires back to the transformer’s accessory posts.
Adding an interior
Although the Lionel 184 is small, when you light one up, you can still see it’s empty. Find a picture of a floor and size it to 2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. Print it out, lay it inside the house, and poke a hole in the print so you can run the wires through. Even a black and white printout looks better than none at all. Placing some inexpensive figures inside helps make the house look more lived in as well. Liberty Falls figures are cheap and small enough to not overwhelm the house. If you don’t mind plastic, pick up some inexpensive 1:50 scale figures or, maybe better yet, 1:75 scale figures. You can get a quantity of 100 figures for less than $15.
Why just a floor? I’ve tried walls inside structures this size and found they block too much light, spoiling the effect. The tiny windows allow you to see some of the floor and that’s about it. So a printed floor and a figure visible from one or two prominent windows is enough to make the house look like someone lives there.