Willoughby: Trains for tots — a 1950s obsession
Legends & Legacies
Those of you who were not alive in the 1950s may be connected to toy trains through Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas revived train toy sales that had rapidly declined beginning in the 1960s. The decade of the 1950s was the height, and I was one of the many boys who delighted in them.
Toy trains go back to the 19th century, and the first electric toy trains appeared in America in 1897. Interest in Aspen increased when The Aspen Times ran an article “Electricity in Modern Toys.” Since Aspen homes had had electricity for the previous two decades, having a train for a child that was powered by electricity including lights was an easy step. But no model train was advertised until 1919 when the Kay Stores Company offered “trains that run on tracks.”
Interest in toy trains must have grown, because three years later one of Aspen’s more aggressive retailers, Arthur DeMerais, offered sets with prices beginning at $4.50 ($65 in today’s dollars). DeMerais sold a variety of unrelated items and also bought merchandise from people needing to sell their belongings. His basic business was furniture, with a store he opened in the 1890s, but to expand his customer base, he sold baby carriages and bicycles. He offered toys mostly during the Christmas shopping season.
There was no DeMerais in my childhood. I and other boys in the 1950s were more akin to today’s Amazon as we did our merchandise dreaming and buying from Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogs. The trains, especially in the Christmas catalog, covered pages. There were steam engine versions and modern day ones we could see in action pulling freight cars to Aspen. Railroad cars of all kinds were available, and other scaled items from trees to train stations.
I had no idea of the concept then, but there has always been a distinction between “toy” trains and “model trains,” the difference being that model trains were designed to be exact replicas of real historic or contemporary trains, but scaled to a smaller size.
Scaling was exact with several standards, like HO. I had a friend with a larger scale, large enough to haul a school lunch box on a flatcar. In the other direction, there was a scale where a whole engine could fit in your palm.
My train was somewhere in between toy and model since it ran on three rail tracks but had an engine and cars made of painted metal that well-represented its contemporary real-life engine. Lionel manufactured most model trains then.
Most of my friends and I were ambitious, wanting to create miniature landscapes and villages complete with a tunnel. We were at odds with our parents since our small homes did not have, except for an occasional basement or attic, room for a permanent layout. The compromise was often a 4-foot-by-8-foot sheet of plywood that we could tack the track to. It would be stored vertical and flipped to the floor for use. Ha, not what either parent or kid wanted, so usually we set up and then took down the set.
We subscribed to model train magazines, paged through the mail order catalogs and combed the pages of Popular Mechanics where there were pictures of elaborate layouts with not a train, but trains, running circles and figure eights.
My home had an almost attic, a space accessed by a ladder and a square door intended to access plumbing and electrical lines. It worked for me, and since my mother had no intention of climbing up to peer in, it doubled as a “club house.” To be honest, I am not sure I ever plugged in my train transformer, as there was likely not an outlet there. But I enjoyed constructing a few components as a dream layout formed in my mind.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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