Note (1/4/2017): I wrote this blog post many years ago after deciding to try something different.
The approach to train layouts has changed a lot over the years and I assumed in the 1930s it was similar to the 1950s. I’m no longer certain it was. That said, if you want to know about how to make a 1950s-style layout that looks prewar, I have blog posts about vintage tin buildings and newer tin buildings that describe what I found after years of searching. If you want to know what’s available for you to buy for your own layout, check out those two links.
If you want to hear my questions that started my research, read on below.
It’s time to come out of the closet. I’m sick of hi-rail.
Hi-rail, for the uninitiated, is the practice of “serious” model railroading in 1:48 or 1:64 scale using Lionel or American Flyer trains, respectively.
I find two things annoying about it: the snobbery and the price. If I’m gonna pay $100 for a train car, it’d better be older than me and it’d better still be worth that next week. But I found my way out.Way back when all of this started, trains were toys, pure and simple. Kids set them up on the floor, played with them, and then broke them back down and put them in boxes when they were done. Later, sets got put on tables and accessorized, making something that resembles a modern model railroad. But it was still a toy, and it looked like one.
The companies that made trains of course made tin lithographed train stations for the trains. Often they even put different towns’ names on them. Eventually Lionel made some houses and other buildings so you could have something that resembled a town.
Marx made a whole slew of tin litho buildings for its lines of plastic figures, sold in the 1950s. I’ve seen a Marx barracks, a Marx construction office, and Marx log cabins. I’ve seen pictures of Marx airports, service stations, and even a Sears department store. The only trouble is, Marx’s playsets were 1:32 scale while Marx’s trains were 1:64 scale. They’re too big for a Marx train, although they’d go pretty well with a Lionel Standard Gauge train (the really, really big trains that were discontinued in 1940 because of their high price).
In the 1950s, a traditional toy train layout had Plasticville buildings. Bachmann Bros. of Philadelphia was a pioneer in injection molding, and after its toy plastic fence became popular for use with toy trains, they followed with a whole city’s worth of buildings. Most people probably remember those buildings as well as they remember the trains.
But I have yet to find an equivalent to Plasticville that’s made of metal. A direct counterpart probably doesn’t exist. A lot of people use the tea/cookie/candy tins that will be flooding the stores as soon as Halloween is over with. The look is right, and the size is about right, and, once you’re sick of paying $60 for plastic buildings, the price is definitely right. But I really don’t know how many Coca-Cola, Campbell’s Soup, and Hershey logos I can stand to have on my layout.
A lot of people use Lemax and Department 56 holiday village buildings and their discount store knockoffs. The ceramic look is whimsical, but there’s something about metal, you know? Maybe you don’t, but if you saw it, you would.
I think the antique stores and eBay are my best bet, but I’m not really sure what to be looking for. I’m in unfamiliar territory here. I’m old enough to have played with Tonka trucks whose only plastic parts were the wheels. But the majority of the toys in my world were plastic. When Bachmann launched Plasticville, plastic was space age. By my time, plastic was ubiquitous and cheap.
So I need to appeal to the knowledge of the generations that came before me. Do any of you remember toy buildings, made of metal, that are proportioned about right for a Matchbox car? (Looking good with the old-fashioned 1:43 scale cars that were about 4 inches long would be better, but the more recent 1:64 3-inch ones are close enough.) And do you have any recollection of what the buildings were and who made them?
I’m sure Marx must have made at least one or two buildings sized about right for their cars, especially since they already had tooling for train stations they could recycle–just lithograph a different design on the same structure. And I know after the war, West Germany produced a lot of tin toys because they already knew how, having been the leading producer of them for decades before WWII. Japan produced a lot of tin toys too, because the tooling was cheap and simple, so they were an ideal product for rebuilding its economy. But what did they make?
Does anyone out there have any memory fragments that might point me in some direction? Any direction?