A frequent question I see regards the proper scale of snow village-type buildings, like Department 56 and Lemax, and whether they’re suitable for use with Lionel electric trains.
The answer is that their scale varies, but the buildings work very effectively with traditional Lionel trains, or, for that matter, 1:64 S scale American Flyer trains. Many hobbyists have built elaborate winter-themed layouts using these buildings. Typically the scale runs from anywhere from 1:64 to 1:48, with lots of selective compression to make the buildings fit an approximate footprint. The very same thing is true of the Lionel trains of the 1950s, so, intentional or not, they end up being a pretty good match.
The figures sold with these buildings, on the other hand, tend to be much larger–very close to 1:24 scale. This discrepancy bothers some people more than others. 1:24 figures are better suited for G scale.
Dealing with scale
Since most seasonal layouts aren’t intended to be fine-scale models–and Lionel, American Flyer and Marx trains of generations past weren’t either–it doesn’t bother me if it doesn’t bother you. After all, many of the accessories the big three sold when their trains were new were off scale. But the discrepancy is a convenient excuse to use something cheaper.
The Cobblestone Corners brand of winter village sold at Dollar Tree features figures that are about 1 1/2 inches in height, which would be 6 feet tall in 1:48 scale. That makes them a much closer match for the costlier Dept. 56 and Lemax buildings and for the trains. They come in packs of between three and five figures for a dollar, so you can get a sizable population for the price of one building.
Drug store chains also sometimes sell figures very similar to the Cobblestone Corners figures. They won’t be any cheaper, but they may very well be dressed a bit differently, to give your layout some variety.
Dollar Tree also sells trees and lights whose size are suitable for use with the costlier villages. Just be aware the stock tends to dwindle before Thanksgiving.
The scale of the buildings can vary a bit, but you can easily disguise that by clustering like-sized buildings together. Put the slightly undersized buildings further back on the layout, and they just look a little further away than they really are.
Setting a time period
Buildings of this style give you a lot of levity when it comes to time settings. Buildings of this style often date to the late 19th century, but they were in use for a very long time. In St. Louis, an 1890s neighborhood turned into a boom town in the late 1950s. And for about 10 years Gaslight Square was the place to be. Winter clothes don’t change a lot over time, so the way people dress won’t really set the time. Vehicles are the easiest way to set what decade you’re after. So you can use Dept. 56 and Lemax buildings with vehicles from whatever time period you’re nostalgic for, and the mix will work.
Keep in mind the trains have a time period too. Colorful steam engines evoke the 19th century. The majority of Lionel steam engines evoke the first half of the 20th century, into the 1950s. Diesel engines started appearing in the late 1930s but their heyday really started in the 1950s, continuing to today.
What is a snow village?
If you’re not quite sure what I’m talking about when I refer to snow village buildings, most chain stores sell a selection of them around Christmas (read: as soon as they stop selling Halloween stuff). Many of these stores have their own house brand for them, but they’re almost all made by a company called Lemax. Department 56 is a higher-end brand, usually sold in specialty shops at a correspondingly higher price. Typically they are made of porcelain and come with electric lights to light up the interiors to make them look occupied.
Dept 56 and Lemax on a budget
Amassing a sizable collection of these buildings can be costly if you’re paying retail, but frequently these buildings go on sale and they are eligible for the generous 40% off coupons that most craft store chains run on a semi-regular basis. They also don’t hold their value well, so you can buy them secondhand very inexpensively. Estate sales that mention Christmas items in the ad are a good place to look for these buildings at steep discounts over retail.
Not to mention if you choose to use Dollar Tree figures to populate your village, you can get a slew of figures from Dollar Tree for the cost of one figure from Department 56 or Lemax.
I’ve seen Dollar Tree put these figures out as early as August, but October seems to be more common. Stock tends to dwindle by Thanksgiving, so for the best selection each year, start looking in October.