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Collecting Plasticville, U.S.A.
SYMBOLS OF POST WAR BLISS AND CONTENTMENT
by Bob Brooke


First Came the Fence
The Beginnings of Plasticville
Creating "Anytown, USA"
Bachmann Gets Serious
Identifying and Dating Plastiville Kits
The Market for Plasticville
Made in China
Reproduction Parts

Except for the flag and Mom’s apple pie, there’s probably nothing more all-American than Plasticville, USA, the model buildings made by Bachman Industries which have come to symbolize post World War II peacetime bliss and contentment. Many a baby boomer remembers sitting on their dad’s lap and watching as the Lionel trains chugged around the miniature world under the Christmas tree. But the real thrill came when Dad turned off the room lights and every building glowed in full nighttime display. It was the idyllic life–1950s-style.

Bachmann Bros., in business in Philadelphia since 1833, selected the name "Plasticville, U.S.A." for its line of injection-molded plastic buildings, signals, figures, trees, and vehicles which it began manufacturing in late 1946. Prior to that time, toys had no bearing on the firm's financial welfare. Instead, they manufactured women’s hair combs from celluloid, the first synthetic plastic material developed in 1868, followed by celluloid optical frames known as "tortoise shell" and protective eye wear for military use until World War II.

First Came the Fence
After the war, Bachmann executives wanted to expand and chose miniature plastic fencing. They knew how popular displays at the base of Christmas trees had become and hoped to capitalize on that trend.

They unveiled their original16-piece fence and gate set in an advertisement for Monsanto plastics published in the November 23, 1946, issue of the Saturday Evening Post. Ironically, they pictured the fence alongside a Lionel train, among other new toys, all made of Monsanto's new Lustron polystyrene plastic.

Bachmann didn’t actually market the fence until May 1947. At that time, it touted the product as a "Christmas fence" for use in Yuletide displays known as "Christmas gardens." But the fence was nine feet tall in O gauge (Lionel) scale, thus it resembled a fence around a prison garden.

Before long, however, consumers had discovered that these white fences looked great on toy train layouts. Following the public's lead, Bachmann didn't hesitate to promote its fencing as perfect for the model railroading hobby.

The Beginnings of Plasticville
By 1950, a variety of small accessories had joined Bachmann's fences–plastic trees and bushes, a foot bridge, a wishing well, a trellis, as well as a brown rustic fence and a picket fence. Before then, the firm sold its fencing in nondescript packaging. But after expanding its line of accessories, it needed to link the components. The key, executives knew, was a name, so they decided on "Plasticville U.S.A."

The new product name captured the optimism of the early postwar years and conjured up the modern as well as the traditional. The word "plastic" connoted a revolutionary new material with unlimited potential associated with convenient, inexpensive, and readily disposable items.

At the same time many Americans saw plastic as a symbol of progress, they also yearned for a simpler, almost rural past, when change was slower. Marketers at Bachmann, sensitive to the undercurrent of nostalgia, appended "ville" to the name of their new line in order to tap into the lingering sentimentality.

Convinced they were on the right track, executives added bucolic elements like a birdbath, yard pump, and trellis, and a Cape Cod house. They stamped each piece with the word "Plasticville" or the letters "BB" on a banner within a circle. Also available was a barn with a silo, roof ventilators and a weathervane. Bachmann then released two versions of a country church. By Christmas 1950, Bachmann offered a white and red grocery store, plus a gas station molded in similar colors. Especially striking were the window inserts depicting details that enhanced the look of both items. A new fire house completed the current line. Solid sales, bolstered by promotion in the F. W. Woolworth's 5 & 10 variety stores, propelled Bachmann to expand the line further.

Creating "Anytown, U.S.A."
Over the next few years, Plasticville U.S.A. gained more of every type of building. Starting in 1952, a new diner captured the look of restaurants throughout the Northeast. Businesses like the Plasticville Hardware, Pharmacy, 5 and 10, and supermarket, all of which appeared in 1953, helped fill out the line. To capitalize on the fast food trend begun in the mid-50s, Bachmann added the Frosty Bar in 1954.

And it didn’t forget about the town’s spiritual life, adding two more houses of worship. A white and gray parish church introduced in 1953 offered attractive paper inserts that simulated stained glass windows. Grander still was the cathedral, added in 1955, has become one of the most desirable pieces among collectors.

A town wouldn’t be complete without housing. In the late 1940s and early '50s, suburbs around New York City and Philadelphia introduced the world to tract housing. Up to that time, Plasticville offered only the Cape Cod offered previously. A two-story colonial and a New England ranch appeared in 1954. As with all Plasticville houses, an array of color variations exists, with a few bringing premiums among collectors.

In any town across America, community buildings like post offices and hospitals also have a place. Bachmann brought out a post office in 1953, featuring a gray front and roof with tan sides, two paper window inserts and an American flag. Also new in 1954 was an enormous white and blue hospital. This was one of the firm’s most ambitious pieces with operating and examination tables, beds, and other appropriate furnishings included. The Plasticville Airport also appeared that year. The white and blue administration building joined the multicolored hangar which came out in 1952. Bachmann realized that the town wouldn’t look populated unless there were vehicles so it produced a bus and assorted cars as well. A more modern gas station with washing facilities and two islands with pumps made its debut the following year. Plasticville even had its own model of Independence Hall, created as a tribute to the real one in Philadelphia.

But the hub of activity in Plasticville was still the railyard. Railroad-oriented items made their debut in 1950. First came a station platform molded in light gray or brown plastic and featuring, respectively, a brown or green roof and a small sign identifying the locale as Plasticville. A manually operated crossing gate with a white arm and a black or red base came next.

The most impressive newcomer was a suburban station, with a brown platform and roof and trim in light gray, brown, or green. Two signs and a chimney gave it personality, as did the benches added later.

Bachmann Gets Serious
Four years passed before Bachmann expanded this part of the line. A switch tower, with a sign saying "Plasticville Junction" and molded in the same colors as that of the suburban station, plus a black signal bridge debuted in 1954.

Bachmann brought out only one railroad accessory in 1955, a black trestle bridge. But the following year they offered Union Station, a handsome passenger terminal with gray platforms on both sides of a green and white central office. Two more additions debuted in 1957–a water tank and a loading platform. A watchman's shanty entered the line in 1958.

Work and play characterized two additions for 1957–a tan factory with a gray or brown roof, smokestack, and water tower, and a red and white TV station known by its distinctive calling letters, WPLA,

All throughout the 1950s, Bachmann added items to reflect the changing times and progress that had been made and their devoted consumers continued to add to their collections. But these weren’t collections in the true sense–at least not yet. It would be at least two decades before collectors realized that Plasticville’s charm made it a perfect collectible. At that time, the buildings sat in their boxes in attics and basements all over America awaiting the next Christmas.

Identifying and Dating Plasticville Kits
The way collectors can identify and date their Plasticville buildings is by the type of box Bachman used to package it. According to the guide produced by the Plasticville Collectors Association, the first box was the pre-Plasticville box, which didn’t say Plasticville but "Bachmann Bros."

The second box contained early 1950's Plasticville buildings. Limited to two colors, the sides of the box featured a line of Plasticville buildings, simulating a village. This box stated "Plasticville, U.S.A." and "Made to Scale for Popular Size Trains" and also featured the phrase "Patent Applied For." The third box clearly shows the patent date of 1952.

The fourth box featured more detailed color and a scenic view of the building. Additions to this box included the word "Regular" before Plasticville, U.S.A. "Scaled to O and S Gauge" which replaced the "Made to Scale for Popular Size Trains." The phrase "The Original Plastic Village" appeared after the product title. The side of the fifth box was yellow, white, and red while the top had a colorful scenic lithograph with a red border.

The sixth box’s sides were blue, white, and red and no longer showed a row of houses but instead examples of other buildings in the line. The top had a colorful, scenic lithograph with the "U.S.A." in Plasticville, U.S.A. appearing in a shield. The statement, "Exclusive Snap Fit Assembly, No Glue Needed for Assembly," showed in the lower right hand corner of the box top.

While keeping the text, Backmann changed the drawing to a color photograph of the building in a wooden frame on the seventh box.

The eighth box featured a scenic lithograph surrounded by a white border. It featured the wording "The Original Plastic Village, Just Snap Together, No Glue". For the first time since the late 1940's the "Bachmann" name appeared in large type rather than as an aside. Variations included a box with "Bachmann O-S Scale," one with "Bachmann O-27," and one featuring a color picture of the item rather than a litho drawing, but with the O-S designation.

By the early 1980's, the red and white eleventh box featured a photograph of the item, with "Bachmann" and "Plasticville" arched around a "B." The wording "for use with all Lionel and other O scale layouts," "O scale building and landcaping kit" and "Snap Fit Building Kits," appeared for the first time. Two variations existed: one set of boxes had four-digit catalog numbers, the other five-digit ones–Bachmann was changing from a four-digit to a five-digit system.

The Market for Plasticville
"The market for Plasticville is very soft at the moment," said Dave Horner, of Barrington, New Jersey, who helps his deaf son, Scott, sell Plasticville items at train shows. "We’ve noticed a decline in the last three years of doing Greenberg Toy and Train Shows." Scott Horner’s Plasticville business grew out of his vast collection. At any one time, noted his father, he carries at least one of each of the 104 items in the Plasticville line. In addition, he has a Plasticville catalog collection that’s second to none. Now 32, he’s collected Plasticville for 27 years. "We wanted to find a hobby for our deaf son, something that he could easily do even with his impairment," said Horner.

But evidently the market for Plasticville is quite strong on eBay, according to Joe Kutza, president of the Plasticville Collectors Association. "For any item that is not complete, or has a fair box, or no box, the market tends to fluctuate," he said. "The highest values are for complete items with an excellent original box. Complete items without a nice box can easily go for 45-50 percent less than those with a good box. Even worse are glued items. The nicest glued item loses 75-85 percent of it’s value compared to a similar non-glued item."

Collecting Plasticville was inexpensive at the time. In fact, with most items selling in the $8-20 range, it isn’t that expensive to collect today. Originally, items sold for 39 to 99 cents, with discounts after Christmas. Rarer items like the Davy Crocket Log Cabin, Greenhouse, Mobile Home, Turnpike Interchange, Autumn Leaves, and Hobo Shacks can reach $100 or more today. Those produced in rarer colors go for the highest amounts, according to both Horner and Kutza.

"I’d have a hard time getting $5-$6 for a Ranch House with white walls, and light blue roof and trim," Kutza added. "However, a Ranch House with dark blue walls, and a dark gray roof could easily go for $200-$300."

Made in China
"Today, Bachmann has its Plasticville kits made in China," Horner added, "molded from the same molds but in different colors so as not to compete with the originals. However, some how they produced new hobo shacks in the same colors as the originals which really had a drastic effect on the collectible price. The plastic used isn’t the same, either. It’s not as stiff or rigid as the original, tending to be pliable and translucent when held up to a light."

Starting with the 50th Anniversary of Plasticville in 1997 and continuing in 1998 and 1999, Bachmann re-issued many of the buildings, though now made in China, using the original molds but mostly new color combinations. According to Horner, the first year Bachmann had its Plasticville line produced in China, it looked exactly like the original, with the company’s trademark BB in a circle plus Plasticville USA molded into each piece. But the molds were re-etched to add "Made in China" after that.

Reproduction Parts
Several third -party companies make excellent reproduction parts–larger pieces have a small "r" on them. "We count on the sellers to be honest," said Kutza. "If a collector buys a piece at a garage sale from a guy who says, ‘Yeah, I bought the kit in 1957 and haven’t used it since the 1960’s,’ chances are good that all the parts are original. If an ebay seller or a seller at a train show dealer doesn’t know, or isn’t forthcoming with information requests, collectors should think twice."

According to Kutza, ebay has really made Plasticville buildings more available to everyone. "Before eBay, the best place to find Plasticville was at a train show," he said. "Most train stores rarely have more than a token collection of Plasticville items for sale."

The Plasticville Collector’s Association, formed in 1999, is the only one of its kind for Plasticville. It offers a quarterly newsletter and a Web site to its nearly 200 members.

To read more articles by Bob Brooke, please visit his Web site.

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