Work, Play, and Social Artifacts Under the Tree

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

When I was very young, my parents gave me an American Flyer model trainset for Christmas[1], inititiating for me a lifelong process of reading model railroad magazines, if not actually building model railroads, at least as an adult. (My childhood layouts were known as “The Trains,” and lived in a basement or in their own room. My father and I worked on them regularly for many years, and it was splendid to run the cast-iron, chuffing American Flyer steam locomotives in the dark, with the white headlight glaring, and red and green signal lights glowing, and the traincars rattling over the tracks, with the occasional flash of an electrical spark).[2]

So it may be that you received, or more likely gave, a trainset this Christmas. (If you didn’t, I’m going to ask you to try to transform “the trains,” as a social artifact, into some other social artifact, like model boats or airplanes, or dolls houses, or knitting, or possibly even a computer game like Sim Cities, and then comment on your comparison.)

What struck me, as I read the Model Railroader of November 2015 (henceforth, in references, “MR”) , was how the “hobby” of model railroading embodied the social changes that the country, and the world, have undergone since I was young; further, the practice of model railroading as it was evolved over the last two generations has interesting implications for social relations. I’ll start with the model railroad itself, as a material artifact, and gradually zoom out to thoughts about work and play. And of course there’s a bit of class warfare, because isn’t there always?

Model Railroads as Material Artfifacts

Model railroaders, when building model railroads, contruct not only models of locomotives and cars (and signals and track) but model the entire milieu in which trains move, including buildings and landscape. (Some “layouts” historical; others are imagined, but in all cases the model selectively compresses reality, the real raiload, because a real railroad built to scale wouldn’t fit in anybody’s house or even on their land, unless they owned a large estate.) So here’s how one hobbyist contructed the benchwork for his layout. (Layouts aren’t assembled on the floor round the Christmas tree, but displayed on benched, sometimes at eye-height.) “Showing off Colorado Narrow Gauge,” MR, p 34:

The layout consists of three 2×5 modules, the heaviest of which weighs only 30 pounds. This is largely due to the use of foam rather than wood for the layout’s benchwork. “Everything was done with hot glue and a knife,” adds Bob [Smoczynski].

This astonished me; in my day, benchwork was built from wood: 2x4s, or L-beams. The picture of Smoczynski, Martha Stewart-like, assembling his benchwork with a glue gun boggles my mind. But this change in material is normal, now: Hills and cliffs and mountains used to be created with (among other techniques) paper soaked in plaster. Now we carve more sytrofoam and paint it with acrylics. The transition reminds me of the transition for stick-built houses that culminated in stucco-covered Styrofoam pediments in the housing built in the run-up to the foreclosure crisis and collapse.

In my day, people who understood how to work metal stood at the pinnacle of the hobby; the only way to get a really “prototypical” engine, for example, was to fabricate it from metal; there was a strong tool-and-die-making-in-miniature component to the hobby, and some of the tiny locomotives resembled Swiss watches not only in detail, but in the hours of labor invested. Now all that is gone, along with — as Tim Cook tells us — tool and die working, and workers. From “Repairing older N scale handrails,” MR, p. 24:

Most N-scale diesel locomotives had oversized handrails. In fact, they were so outlandishly oversized we called them stovepipes. … What we really wanted were better-looking handrails, and in the 90s we started getting them, thanks mostly to Kato and extremely flexible plastics that could be molded into thin cross-section pieces that would bend, but not break.

So, we can make a “ready-to-run” loco today, using sophisticated molding techniques and materials that didn’t exist back in the day, and get a work product as detailed as almost any Swiss watch-style loco. Do I regret the change? Not in the model railroad context, and even if the plastic handrails are made from plastic, that’s surely a better use of oil than many others I can think of. From the thirty-thousand-foot view, I’d regard a society that can’t make anything except deals as not long for this world (for some definition of “long”: there’s a lot of ruin in a nation).

Model Railroads in the Global Supply Chain

I mentioned how detailed — “detail” is a value for model railroaders, associated with being an accurate representation of a “prototype” — current models are. Let’s zoom in on that a little. From “Athearn adds flare to its HO scale SD70M,” MR, p 70 (and they don’t mean “flare” as in Office Space, but as in a flared radiator):

All the grab irons, lift rings, windshield wipers, cab sunshades, abd the like are factory-installed. These etched-metal and wire details look great. …. Our sample, a replica of Norfolk Southern no. 2621 [!!], bore railroad-specific details like roof-mounted antennas that matched NS protoype photos in the January 2003 issue of Diesel Era.–

Hmm. “Factory-installed.” And where might that factory be? Somewhere in Asia, surely. And of course the SD70M is one of the ginormous new (OK, new in the last twenty years) locos that haul huge container trains from the ports of the West Coast to the rest of the country; the irony being that MR is celebrating the very technology of transport that allowed us to hollow out our industrial base. (Of course, somebody in this country — I imagine — wrote an excellent spec, down to the detail of a single engine, unheard of in my day. But from the thirty-thousand-foot view, I’d regard a society that couldn’t do anything but write the spec as not long for this world).

Model Railroads as a Locus for (White) Male Friendship

From the material basis of the models and their manufacture, let’s move to social relations (here, friendship, leaving aside the father-son aspect). From “Showing off Colorado Narrow Gauge,” MR, p 34:

Jim invited Bob over to his house to look at his 0n30 layout. That visit lasted five hours. After seeing what could be accomplished in O scale, Bob decided to sell all his HO equipment and change his modeling focus to On30. The two men have been friends ever since. In 2009, they began to build their own Colorado Narrow Guage Railroad.

If I had time to go through my entire stack of MRs, I could give hundreds of other similar examples, and in a way the stories are rather touching, especially given what seems to be our society’s prohibition of expressions of male intimacy outside the sporting context; the owner of a very influential layout moved to a “retirement community” (ugh), and his friends made sure to build him a spur on one of their own layouts, so he could come, er, “work” on it.)

However, if you read all the articles, and especially if you look at the pictures, you’ll see these friendships are formed among men of a certain age, often retired, who own houses with large spare rooms, basements, or garages, into which they can fit their layouts[3], and who have the means to purchase rather expensive equipment.[4] And yes, this is the class warfare part. One doesn’t see many black faces in the pages of MR, and I’m guessing one reason for that is housing policies (starting, sadly, with FDR), which have simply denied many, many blacks enough space for an American-style layout. One might also think of identifying these “white, male,” often working class model railroaders with Trump voters, but I’m not sure how significant the overlap would be; I read one driver of Trump voting as increased mortality among Trump voters — the experience of it, and the fear of it — and most of the bios of model railroaders show long life.

Model Railroads and Control of the Means of Production

There’s model railroading, and there’s model railroading. This distinction, and the transition from one to the other, is perhaps the greatest change in the hobby since my day; my father and I were, after all, content to run “the trains” around and around in a circle, but real trains don’t work like that. Model railroading is put under the heading of “Operations,” and the idea is to run the model railroad using a more or less realistic workface, with workers doing jobs in social relations that more or less closely model the protoype. For example, “Track plan for an industrial corridor,” MR, p 37, describes a small layout:

Because [the Southside Spur] is so short, I was able to capture much of it in N scale exactly 160 times smaller and the prototype. The plan is a true model of a railroad, as opposed to a model railroad. [It] requires only two locomotives and about thirty pieces of stock. The narrow focus will allow for super-detailed scenes. If the layout is operated prototypically, the five industries can take an hour or more to switch, perfect for a one or two person crew

OK, a small switching crew. Sounds fun! But a switching “crew” it is; there is real “work” being performed on that spur, by real “workers,” making switching moves that approximate the prototype (as they must, since the geometry of the track is the same). Here’s a larger layout at the Rensselaer Polytechnic. “Legacy of the Berkshire Lines,” MR, pp 50-51:

In addition to road crews, a dispatcher, three yardmasters, and three yard hostlers keep the road running. … A typical operating session involves getting 23 freight trains, 17 passenger trains, and 3 milk trains over the road. Freight traffic includes coal and iron trains, as well as way freights. The total train movements involve 318 freight cars, 114 passenger cars, and 34 cabooses.

Road crews, dispatchers, yardmasters, hostlers; again, “real” work being performed by real works. Indeed, there’s an entire genre of “Operations” that seeks to run model trains according to the rulebooks and printed forms relevant to the railroads and the historical period. “The Operators,” Andy Sperandeo, MR, November 2015 p 90:

How do we know its empty? This should be obvious when it comes to open-top cars of various types. For house cars, tanks, and covered hoppers we can rely on our car routing systems. …. [Tony Koester] describes working with the common car-and-waybill system. …. Those interested in more prototypical forms can see “Upgrade your car routing with realistic waybills,” by Ted Pamperin. However, paperwork can be a problem if a waybvill says an open-top car is loaded when it looks empty to us.

Filling out forms just like you were back in the yard office or your locomotive cab! Well, apparently people find that fun. And why not? And why not the technology, as well as the forms: “Building a model railroad telephone system,” MR, p 58:

On my Stockton & Copperopolis RR, set in the 1890s, a dispatcher sits at a desk in the family room/crew lounge, which is separate from the model railroad. In the layout room, I have an operator’s desk for a separate operator who copies orders and delivers them to the train crews. The people need to communicate with each other…. I’ve collected a lot of period railroad telephone hardware and wanted to use it on my layout….

And so he built his own 1890s telephone system, and operated the railroad using it….

What fascinates me here is that the closer “operations” get to prototype practice, the closer the model gets to controlling the means of production in model form, except through play, not work. Economists — and I’m semi-serious here — use “models” all the time. And as we’ve seen, if we measure elite models by their ostensible purposes, as opposed to their operational truths (“All power to the 1%!”) they’re terrible models; they’re like models with rivets the size of melons, or wheel flanges that look like pizza cutters. Is there a reason to think that playful models, devised by autodidactic experts motivated by friendship, would be less effective at — to strike a blow at random — running the economy than the models used by economists? Just a thought.[6]


I’ll close on a somber note. “Finding pieces of the puzzle,” Tony Koester, MR, p 75:

A key source of information is rapidly disappearing for transition-era [steam to diesel] modelers: railroaders and townpeople, most retired, who worked for the railroads and industries and who performed the jobs we wish to simulate. I would imagine that many of the sources of this information have already passed on or reside in retirement homes

Note the class-based assumption that retirees end up in retirement homes. Note also that when Koester says “performed the jobs we wish to simulate” he’s saying what I said, in different words: Controlling the means of production in model form.[5]

More centrally, Koester warning reminds me of the position that old codgers like me are in: I’d very much like to be able to pass on, for example, some concept of how constitutional government used to function, or when fraud wasn’t the first think you thought of when you heard the word “bank,” or when Democrats did things like pass Social Security, or Medicare, the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act. Or how to run a meeting, or recognize and master rhetorical forms. The “tool and die” work of democracy, you might say. And the blueprints, and how to read them. Of course, the past is past, but it would be nice to capture the best of it and pass it along to the future. After all, there aren’t any steam engines on the mainline any more, but people still come to together around model railroads that include them.


[1] Just like the now-retired editor: Jim Hediger, “43 Years of Having Fun,” MR, p 8:

“My interest in model railroading began as a youth with an American Flyer tinplate layout…. My dad and I built our first 4×8-foot HO layout by following the article “Layout in a Fortnight” published in the December 1951 Model Railroader.

[2] Anecdotally, I believe there’s a strong correlation between childhood model railroading and adult computer programming, and then of course there’s the famous model railroad club at MIT, which spawned many hackers.

[3] British model railroaders seem to be comfortable with layouts whose scope is smaller; a single station, for example, as opposed to an entire mountain range including the mines and a dock for the ore-laden ships, like an American would build before they really got going.

[4] Of course, if you’re well-off enough — not squillionare-level, but executive-level — you can actually hire a firm to build your “museum quality” “dream layout” for you. This too was unheard of in my day. I recall vividly a British layout built to recall a boyhood Manchester in the days of steam, which was then shipped to Dubai. Engineering issues involved heat, moisture, the stress of shipping, etc. Imagine being able to purchase a dream! It was a very beautiful, atmospheric layout, though…

[5] But, you say, with no owners, at least as part of the simulation. And your point?

[6] Cf. “the glooper” in Terry Pratchett’s Making Money.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
This entry was posted in Macroeconomic policy, Social policy, Social values on by .

About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Steve H.

    terrible models

    The model trains were tangible models of a tangible system. There are scale differences, but they can be tested against material reality, and they don’t ignore fundamentals like gravity.

    When I worked in the Groundwater Modelling Lab, we were doing intangible models of tangible systems. We could test theory against tangible experiments, but when it came to modelling a real location over fractured bedrock, the model was unequivocally limited. If you wanted facts on the ground, you ran dye tests and hoped.

    Where are the feedback observation points of intangible models of intangible complex systems? Behaviorists have equations that work remarkably well, over half the time. However, to get there they had to throw out cases (about a third in one example I know of). The incentives in economic models select for predictability in a limited set of cases, but seem to get applied generally.

  2. Steve H.

    – the closer the model gets to controlling the means of production in model form

    Working on why this phrasing itches so much…

    For tangible products, prototyping is a way that a model can influence/control the form of a product, and thence the means of production. Even if a prototype is a computed model, it gets tested against an objective reality.

    With economic models, we’ve seen the practise of changing a definition to get an outcome that the model is supposed to predict. CPI & UE are particular cases in point. This is the implementation of cognitive capture.

    In a harder to define way, the models the Fed use control the means of production on Wall Street. By figuring out the implicit incentives in the model, individuals adapt to game a system being controlled by a model. ZIRP leads to stock buybacks, which leads to increased stock price. An increased stock price is not considered inflation, but rather adds to GDP, thus ZIRP increases GDP and the model is self-confirmed. But cui bono, the benefits of increased GDP accrue to those in a position to game the system.

  3. Tertium_Squid

    Model railroading is put under the heading of “Operations,” and the idea is to run the model railroad using a more or less realistic workface, with workers doing jobs in social relations that more or less closely model the protoype.

    To really match existing railroads you’d need great struggles with gov’t agencies and a handful of bankruptcies.

    Working with old model trains requires ingenuity and humility. They were meant to be fiddled with and worked on. I got out my grandpa’s old Lionel 1666 Prairie Steamer, and it’s a magnificent little device.

  4. JCC

    Coincidentally during my time off this week, I started thinking about model railroads and how much they’ve changed over the years. I was also given a Gilbert American Flyer set as a child and dreamed of having a permanent setup back then.

    So, with some time off and thinking of Christmas Train Sets, I read the latest issue of MR as well as read through a lot of forum posts on some of the more popular model railroader sites checking out layouts, trains, model scenery, etc. and technology for running them and found it fascinating for many of the same reasons (other than “controlling the means of production” – that one didn’t occur to me, at least not in that sense).

    I haven’t paid much attention to the state of the hobby over the last fifteen years or so and was surprised at all the advertisements for “prebuilt model layouts delivered to your door”. It also struck me as odd that so many spent time simulating the full operation of a few hours of actual train operation from days gone by. My first and only thought was “boring” – spending all that time and money building a beautiful and realistic model and then spending time doing the most mundane, even if complicated, part of daily train operations.

    My second thought was that I would love to build a model layout simulating the railroad trips I’ve taken or observed over the last 15 years or so, miles and miles of what looks like bombed out abandoned factories and warehouse yards between Buffalo and Chicago, or abandoned spurs with rusted out tankers, gondolas and tankers out here in the mining areas of Nevada and SoCal, with one line of a couple of hundred cars snaking through the mountains taking all our dirt to the Far East.

    The only problem I see with my model is that, based on all the layouts I saw on the web, I’m not sure if I have the time, money, or space to model the “prototypical” areas in homes that hold the prototypical models… I went through one recent thread, with photos, of one modeler’s setup, a very nicely laid out cellar entertainment room complete with a large lighted sign that said “MANCAVE” and a 30 foot long mahogany bar with a full Kato Layout – not cheap – running the length of the bar under glass with digital control stations – not cheap – along the bar for 5 trains – definitely not cheap. At least half the commenters remarked that they couldn’t wait until they built their own “man caves” – a term I find disturbing – like his complete with a bar layout. He vary graciously invited all comers to operate his layout and spin his large casino-style spinning wheel in order to choose what beer (complete with photo of large spinning wheel with 18 or 20 pictures of imported beers) they wanted to go along with the good times.

    I guess some still have lots of money and conspicuous consumption is still a very popular hobby.

    Meanwhile, though, I’m still planning my “prototypical” n scale layout of rustbelt operations. It should be relatively cheap to build; digital control unnecessary for two locomotives, one amtrack set stuck on a siding waiting for one ConRail set to go by (a “prototypical” two hour operation based on my real life experiences). The setting will have lots of secondhand rolling stock from ebay painted with rust colored paint on a few abandoned sidings leading to 10 or 20 half-finished factory/warehouse models with large empty parking lots complete with abandoned autos and no human figures, all setup to look like they’re disintegrating.

    On second thought… forget it. I guess I understand why train modelers do what they do, a deep longing for days past that will never return in our lifetimes.

  5. ambrit

    As you open, you describe a scenario few young people ever encounter; mentoring. All the other valid points you mention aside, the fact of having an adult dedicated to sharing experiences with a child, and carrying that sharing through to inclide lessons in navigating the material and social world encompassing both is invaluable. This is socialization in its’ best aspect. Being an intimate expression of social relations, this form of socialization is the determining factor in the child becoming a member of a society, rather than a consumer of the Culture.
    Here’s to your Dad, Lambert.

    1. guest

      Koester warning reminds me of the position that old codgers like me are in: I’d very much like to be able to pass on, for example…

      To extend the scope of the “scenario that few young people ever encounter”: how many amongst NC readers ever transmitted their professional knowledge to a son/daughter/niece/nephew? This used to be prevalent in the past (whether as farmer, craftsman, fisherman, merchant, miner, etc).

      And nowadays?

    2. flora

      re: mentoring
      One of the most valuable skills a young person can learn is how to approach a problem, be it model construction or anything else. Hard to put into words, but learning to approach any problem with a playful seriousness is key I think. Playfulness in the sense of being open to new ideas – even one’s own ideas, new approaches, trial and error, learning how to learn. Serious in the sense of recognizing goals, limits, possible consequence, evaluating a situation and adopting methods or efforts that one thinks conform to the boundaries of the given problem, not being afraid to try. A younger person usually learns this by watching an older and more experienced person. When one learns how to approach problems in the ‘unimportant’ world of a hobby it mentally constructs an important way of approaching problems in ‘the real world’. Out of this comes a grounded and necessary confidence, I think.

  6. DJG

    Fascinating. I recalled a chapter in one of Tony Judt’s last books, Ill Fares the Land, in which he argued that trains are a symbol of the future. So I think that as a social artifact they are a special case, not matched by model airplanes, for instance. Judt points out that one of the characteristic recent change in the U.S. and U.K. is the decline and active destruction of railroads. The U.S. is much farther along in destruction of intercity railroads than the U.K. is, although many U.S. cities maintain subway systems and commuter railroads. All the more reason to think of model railroading as a kind of alternate tactic to preserve ideas for how to arrange transit in a landscape. Model railroaders are like people who still build furniture by hand or who still sew clothes. The knowledge is in occultation, I suppose.

  7. DJG

    And as you point out, older people who worked on railroads don’t just disappear into “retirement homes for railway workers.” They are the force behind such interesting places the Illinois Railway Museum:

    Some of the “old” engines and cars in the big barns look as if they are waiting for their future, and they don’t seem at all like relics of the past. Consider these railway museums something like “seed savers” exchanges.

  8. JEHR

    Our railroads are used to carry massive amounts of bitumen from the tar sands (and other toxic chemicals) that have caused many horrible accidents either of spills or of fires that destroy lives and/or property. That is the other side of railroading.

  9. craazyboy

    Well, no choo choos here, but I’ve decided to make my Arduino microcontroller a social artifact and go 32 bit microcontrollers. Rover the Self Driving Monster Truck could be in for an upgrade one of these months.

    STM convinced me when I found out they are pricing their STM32 – F4 dev boards for $10.33. Compared to Arduino, 5X the clock speed, 5X the sram, 20X the program flash, floating point unit, DMA memory and realtime operating system with true multi-threading and multi-tasking.

    Plus they have a nice OOP software layer which gives me nice C++ objects to work with and I don’t need to know about 32bit memory registers, or look up in some humongous manual all those funny looking timer, interrupt, thread and com port names and figure out what I need to do to those things. That would be too much like a career. I’m retired. Now it’s like programming a late 1980s DOS computer!

      1. craazyboy

        Ya, David is amazing. He used to be here in the states at Flight Test – an RC hobbyist org. There he got fined $10K by the FCC for operating radio at too high a power w/out a ham license. Then he went back to Sweden. Here we can get a fine of up to $27K from the FAA if we go above 400 ft. altitude. So he must have found somewhere in Sweden where they leave him alone.

    1. hunkerdown

      Choo-choo cheers to you! We live in a wonderful age when low-power, high-performance dev boards are getting so cheap thanks to cell phones, appliances and the like driving economies of scale and broadening access to components. It looks like that chip has a really nice support package. and a pointed lack of blue LEDs on the dev board… go figure!

      ARM assembler is surprisingly comfortable, though. It wouldn’t hurt to get a passing familiarity with it, especially if the OS you’re using can’t self-host a debugger and UI. Sorta like learning Chinese as a hedge, since you can’t really time when Big ARM is going to muscle in on the desktop and Change Everything. I bet Apple would try it at least once within the next 5-7 years.

      1. craazyboy

        My dev board has the ST-Link bugger built in, included in the $10.33 ! Free software download for the debugger UI. There are at least a half dozen C/C++ compiler/build/debug programming environments available. For free up to some limit on memory use. I’m starting out on the online mbed compiler (simple compiler w/ OOP OS and peripheral hardware libs – but no debugging) whilst in my training wheels stage.

        They say the only time you don’t want a OOP layer nowadays is if you need very well optimized code for fitting into an undersized or clock speed challenged MCU. Or if you have a serious need for a realtime OS – like latencies below half a microsecond. Even then, they say straight C compilers(without the C++ baggage) optimize 97% as well as an assembly guru spending weeks or months hand optimizing code.

        These things are “internet of things” ready too. Libs for inet server, client, web sockets, and wifi, Bluetooth, Ethernet connectivity.

  10. lightningclap

    I stopped taking MR around 1980 as I moved away from that hobby but never lost interest. During this holiday, I have found myself meditating on Christmases of my youth. I’m of the N gauge era, but was always in awe of the heavy metal O gauge locomotives. As a kid, I drew inspiration seeing adults who created finely-crafted buildings etc, from scratch. It can be a fine art! And I could create a world to my liking, which I think is part of the appeal.

    Styrofoam scenery is quite distasteful, but at least everything isn’t crapified and store-bought. I used to get a new Hot Wheels set every year and Mattel was really ahead of the curve preparing me for a crapified world: some new gimmick that never worked right, broke pretty quickly and there were no replacement parts because they had moved on to the next thing and didn’t “support” the product.

    Your closing paragraph most resonates with me. As long as I have been reading this blog, I have had the sense that those of us that are of a certain age were around for the “old” world before FRAUD was the “new normal”, and it’s vitally important that we try to share our historical perspective…as you do on a daily basis!

  11. grayslady

    Lambert, if you haven’t read it yet, I recommend a delightful book by Nevil Shute, Trustee from the Toolroom. The protagonist is one of those miniature tool and die experts you mentioned.

  12. Norb

    I think those of us old enough to remember a life not totally controlled by consumerism see the destruction more clearly. Our work, while we still are able, is to record and keep alive those things we find of value.

    Models are powerful tools for understanding and knowledge. Just as language and blueprints to mention other forms. Being more disposed to visual learning and finding enjoyment in building things, model making formed an important part of my life. My play and joy of hobbies led directly to how I make my living today. The skills I learned while young carried over into adult life.

    Since capitalism seeks to turn the whole world into a commodity to be exploited, over time, the value of things and activities are diminished to exhaustion. Is it any wonder how the concept of a model can be converted from a positive teaching tool into a means to deceive and exploit. For example- the economists misleading model. Another example is visual artists driven to advertising to make a living. Any art corrupted from the idea of truth and craftsmanship to shoddiness for expanded profits.

    Our underlying assumptions and trust in existing social conditions are the glue that hold society together. When the models, language, and blueprints of a society no longer attempt to mirror or at least approximate the existing society, you are left with pure fantasy. This is where madness lies. Fantasy is great as long as you can leave the magic kingdom sometime.

    Ive been thinking for some time that it would be great to get in a room with a bunch of creative people and make a model of a self sustaining city of the future. Really build the thing and map it out. How about making models of integrated manufacturing process that use the wastes of one industry as the raw input resource of the next industry. Ancient communities had this setup with industries set up around olive oil and its byproducts. The next step would be to find some way to finance its construction and actually build it. Model railroading in reverse. Sounds hopeful to me.

    Maybe this process is already underway. Employees buying out companies to become owners and younger people taking the risk to begin farming are examples along the same lines. Migrations are always driven by people forced out of their communities for one reason or another seeking a better life. This better life in our time is the rejection of consumerism. The rich will always have the means to indulge in their many fantasies. Capitalism survives on fantasy. Our choice is to continue living the fantasy for as long as possible or face the hard task of envisioning and constructing a different world. A world based in reality.

    Facing and describing the actual world in which we live is a path we need to take and explore deeply. What better way than thru play and experimentation.

    Its exploring and building a world based on the concepts- if I can’t repair it, recycle it, or supports living processes – it doesn’t belong.

  13. Paul Tioxon

    The immediate neighborhood I grew up in was predominately German. Lots of Lutheran Churches, Church of Brethren, one of the Peace churches along with the Quakers. There were very skilled industrial workers, print type setters, carpenters/cabinet makers and of course, tool and die men. 1/2 a block down the street was the back yard, a large back yard for the neighborhood of a man who ran his own tool and die shop out of a large garage. On his very large back yard he built a railroad track and made small child sized trains large enough for him and his children to ride on. We could watch from the sidewalk when he brought this amazing little railroad to life with him and his family and their friends riding around the yard.

    I used to deliver the Evening Bulletin newspaper to him and on Fridays collect the bill for the weeks worth of papers. I would then get to walk into his work area which was full of all kinds of machinery, all guided by hand, not computer controlled which eventually took over this industry. His work area also had suspended from the ceiling, carefully positioned stereo speakers, that looked like the audiophile lines from KLH or Advent, wood cases 2 or 3 feet tall with classical music from the local classical music radio station WFLN FM. Of course it was not my taste in music but the sumptuous sound and clear quality of the instruments was the envy of my limited budget for stereo equipment as a mere newspaper boy in 1970. I asked him once about the trains and how much I admired him and what he built. To my mind, it was a neighborhood landmark that put the guys with the basement model train platforms to shame. And there were plenty of amazing model train displays in and around the city at the time. Philadelphia was of course a railroad town like no other. The mighty Pennsylvania Railroad, The Reading Railroad and as mighty in importance, The Baldwin Locomotive Works, manufacturer of 10s of 1,000s of mostly steam locomotives. So, there were plenty of men in love with trains because their families worked for some part of the industry and because the city was criss crossed by railroad tracks and commuter lines going through even the nicest of neighborhoods, including the high class Chestnut Hill with 2 commuter stations from the Reading and Pennsylvania RRs. I can’t remember how many serious model train platforms I saw growing up and even more kids with HO train track sets.

    1. JCC


      Nostalgia at Christmas :) I remember those days well, growing up in Buffalo in an ethnic neighborhood, German, Italian, and Irish. Riding the Phoebe Snow safely by myself – conductors keeping an eye out for the kids and letting them know when it was time to get out – at the age of 6 or 7 to Elmira for a summer visit with my Grandparents, train spotting with my Grandfather at the local Erie Lackawanna Roundhouse and Engine Repair station there.

      Paper routes in Buffalo, a local backyard train set owned by a neighborhood architect, our neighbor machinist helping him out and teaching me to thread bar stock in his basement at the age of 10. All gone as well as a lot of the knowledge that went with it.

      I miss those days and the dreams of the future that went with them. It’s easy to understand the attraction of old-fashioned model railroading.

    2. optimader

      His work area also had suspended from the ceiling, carefully positioned stereo speakers, that looked like the audiophile lines from KLH or Advent, wood cases 2 or 3 feet tall with classical music from the local classical music radio station WFLN FM.

      Double Advents stacked.. punched way above their acoustical weight

      1. Paul Tioxon

        I went to an audio show of sorts at a downtown hotel, which was attended by a lot of FM radio listeners of rock music and DJs from WMMR FM, including the late, great Ed Sciaky, who used to have Bruce Spingsteen crash on his couch when in the city due to him being a local rock star but a still unknown nationally. There was a demonstration using Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon with a wall of stacked bookshelf speakers. I think they were Dynaco Kits. I do mean a wall, it was taller than me, 6′ with maybe a dozen or so speakers on both the left and right. I don’t know what the amp was, but it sounded like NASA designed the whole thing. It was more crystal clear without the noise of distortion than just really loud decibels. But, it was also really LOUD!! I’ll never forget that stacking speakers in groups gave it way more power than one pair by itself, much much more than just beyond the sum of its parts.

        1. optimader

          You can pick up the old Advents inexpensively these days if you look for them, a lot of this sort of old hardware like this is very much under the radar w/ younger people. Still solid speakers, may need a bit of rehabbing of the foam surrounds but worth the effort.

          Advent Speaker Repair Replace Foam Edge Metal Frame Woofer

  14. Jim A

    A couple of notes from somebody who is likewise interested in model railroads but hasn’t actually broken down an built one.
    To some extant, I view MRs as the Y chromosome version of doll houses…they both appeal to the same “creation of a world in miniature,” part of the brain. For years, I used to be in the historical reenactment hobby, and the similarities in the hobbies are interesting. There is an eternal conflict between those who take things REALLY SERIOUSLY (rivet-counters/authenticity Nazis) and those who just want to have fun. “Prototypical” and “Authentic” become value judgements and woe to somebody who espouses the joys of “toy trains” or LARPing to people who are SERIOUS about the hobby. Model Railroader is firmly in the “joys of exacting the prototype” camp, partly because of the advertising from those who supply the more expensive models and partly to allow hobbyists to separate themselves from childlike toys.

  15. McWatt

    In my day, growing up in the 50’s, many kids had train layouts at home, poor kid’s, rich kids, all had one thing in common; a Dad who loved model railroading. We lived in an apartment building and one kid and his Dad built a super complicated layout on the floor of a spare bedroom. Another kid had his Lionel O gauge run throughout the entire apartment, out of his room, down the hall, around the living room and dining room and back again.

    About four years ago as my grandkids were getting to the 8 year old range, I started taking them to used Model Train shows and together we bought parts to put together, each year after Thanksgiving, a layout that runs around the living room, past the fireplace, around the tree, with gates and switches and out-buildings with two separate tracks. Magic! Whether model trains or real trains, trains are a healing and fascinating link to our past.

Comments are closed.