Vintage tin litho buildings

Years ago, I decided I wanted to take a different approach with my trains. I heard about a guy in Springfield who has a traditional toy train layout with no plastic on it. I wanted to see if I could do something similar.

At the time, information about this approach was rare. So I’ve collected here what I know about tin buildings made prior to 1970 (the approximate end of the postwar era). You won’t find everything you want in pre-1970 buildings, so if you need something more modern to fill in the gaps, see my other post tin buildings for train layouts.

Unfortunately it’s not as easy as going to a train show and buying a tub full of Plasticville and bringing it home. Nobody made a tin product line comparable to Plasticville in its depth or breadth. There are plenty of tin buildings you can buy, but there’s a dearth of commercial buildings. If you want commercial buildings, you’ll need to turn to later production, or use paper buildings. Either way, you’ll be hunting quite a bit longer, as these tin buildings are nowhere near as common as Plasticville.

Yellow Skyline house
This yellow stone and siding tin house by Skyline is my favorite of the two houses in the line. It dates to the 1940s or 1950s.

Skyline was a Philadelphia maker of paper and wood building kits. Soon after World War II, they briefly made two tin litho ranch-style houses. One was yellow, and the other was red and white. I’ve talked a little more about Skyline before.

The U.S. Metal Toy Company made several tin banks shaped like a house, school, church, and dude ranch. The roofs have a slot to accept coins, of course, and frequently the roofs also have holes in them so they can hold lollipops.

I also have a gas station in the same style as the U.S. Metal Toy banks, but it doesn’t have their stamp on it. While the U.S. Metal Toy banks are definitely on the small side, they’ll look good at the back of your layout and make the layout look bigger. Their dimensions are about 4½” high, 4½” wide and 4″ deep.

This O/S scale house made by Hipwell dates to the 1940s. It’s made of lithographed tin.

H&H was a short-lived venture of Hipwell Manufacturing Company of Pittsburgh, a maker of flashlights. H&H sold a line of Cape Cod-style cottages right after World War II under the Twinkle Town brand. The cottages are very similar in size and style to buildings that Bachmann later marketed under its Plasticville brand, though they are much more colorful. Houses like these popped up all over the country after World War II to provide affordable housing in the early days of the Baby Boom.

I understand the owner of the company went to buy some Lionel accessories for his son sometime in the 1940s (the dates in the accounts vary) and the price offended him, so he made better ones himself, and then the company decided to market them. Besides the cottages, H&H also sold some streetlight and street sign accessories. They tend to be a bit harder to find, at least in my experience.

Wyandotte Toytown Fire Dept
The Wyandotte Toytown Fire Department dates to the early 1950s. I don’t know who made the fire truck on the left. The fire truck on the right is the Hot Wheels Old No. 5 from 1980.

Wyandotte made a tin firehouse that’s a staple on many train layouts, tin or otherwise. It measures 6½”x8½” and is five inches tall and can pass for a variety of scales, depending on the size of the fire truck you park in the garage or place around it.

In the 1930s, Lionel made several houses that are undersized even for O gauge trains, but they have the same visual effect as the U.S. Metal Toy banks. Look for the 184 bungalow (which measures 4″ tall x 4½” long x 2½” wide), 189 villa (5½” tall x 4 7/8″ long x 5 3/8″ wide), and 191 villa (5 1/4″ tall x 5″ long x 7 1/8″ wide). Pristine originals can get expensive, but the modern reproductions are pretty affordable, even if they’re usually enamel-painted rather than lithographed.

Stations

Of course you need stations. Otherwise there’s no need for trains. And everyone who made tin trains didn’t make just one station. They made fifteen.

I think the reason for that is because in the 1920s and 1930s they intended each station to represent the whole town. You’d plant stations along the track, run your trains between them, and imagine the rest of each town. Maybe you’d cluster a few little houses around each station.

But if you want something more, take a look at the selection of stations and use your imagination a bit. Many of the prewar American Flyer freight stations could pass for small factories or industrial buildings. The #234 passenger station could pass for an old-time gas station if you put a pump in front of it. And a Lionel #115 or the larger Lionel #116 could pass for a city hall or a courthouse. Just plant it in the middle of an area and cluster businesses around it and it would look like a town square. The dimensions of the 115 are 13-5/8 ” long, 9-1/4″ wide, and 8-1/2″ high, so it has presence.

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