I don’t think I know anyone who got their start in the hobby with a Lionel, Marx, or similar “tinplate” train set. My dad had a set of Marx trains but admits the catalyst for his interest was a brother-in-law’s Tri-ang collection. My first model trains were a set of Life-Like HO scale models. You might have had Bachmann, Tyco, or even the Tri-ang sets. We fondly recall what made them different but what makes us the same is: an “F unit”, two cars, and a caboose. Decades, popular music, and the clothes that make us feel attractive always change but, for a long time, our first dates with model railroading involved a whole lot of F units. I’ve met people whose life of model railroading traces back to the gift of a train set but we have been gift givers long enough to remember lasting gifts that started as intuition suggesting we knew something “they” hadn’t found words for yet.
Train show season starts up around the time when the beaches start to become noticeably less popular, ice cream sales slow, and we start to find ourselves coaxed into stores we loathe as participants in a scavenger hunt for “school supplies” we’ll never comprehend the use of. Pretending the personae of steward we greet our season by unearthing last year’s conversations on how best to promote the hobby, what’s wrong with it now, and what we should be doing preserve it. I truly love the smell of a freshly-opened bag of Woodland Scenics ballast every bit as much as I do the smell of a Lionel smoke generator in its prime. I can feel, equally, an appreciation of antiques as artifacts of human craft development, like case goods hardware or old cook books, but the urge to collect them vacillates between serving nostalgic or needs of a identify branding exercise. A box of old model trains is a different thing. Not completely divorced from nostalgic reason it also activates that predisposition toward this hobby. I wonder about the desired outcome for “promote the hobby” because while we agree on what the symptoms of model railroading are and have attempted various efforts to correlate them to certain demographical identifies I can’t help but think there’s a psychological conversation we haven’t attempted yet. Like the chicken and the egg, I argue the model railroader precedes and exists independently beyond their collection of models.
I estimate I am two-thirds through the book of my life. I have had model trains for now proportionately most of those days. I will probably have them for the next chapters too. I remember friends I shared this hobby with who are now dead. I can’t always describe how but their influence certainly is a part of the good of who I am. I will always see them in other model railroads when a particular thing reminds me of their joy. I have friends who weren’t even born “way back then” who are now leaders producing work today our aging imaginations couldn’t acknowledge let alone create. Growing up on a diet of British model railway magazines instilled a definition I’ve always really liked. Peter Binnie has created a website that’s a beautiful memorial to his father’s work and it’s there that this quote comes from:
Founded in the 1960s in the western suburbs of London the Merioneth Society were a small group modelling 16mm scale narrow gauge on 32mm track.www.colinbinnie.com
They would meet on Friday evenings at a members house, gather around the kitchen table, drink tea and make models.
These last few years have changed us and our definition of community. As our lives stayed home we learned how to maintain our community’s connections using technology beyond the kitchen table. Though my work day consumed more humanity than I ever should have let it I still tried to join in on evening calls with model railroad friends across the country or even closer to home and my telephone can call a favourite friend, across an ocean, by just asking: “Hey. Got a minute?”. All this new found free time, forged inside pandemic-era life, inspired modellers to explore new media platforms. I now sponsor channels on Youtube and Patreon and enjoy content from them of a quality itself unimaginable in 1980’s Prince Edward Island. I think about how community changes our potential for influence. I grew up in the era of the a telephone partyline and it’s fascinating how my “telephone” (iPhone) is a similar touchpoint but instead of connecting me to a curious neighbour it’s a tap for all the experience this hobby yields. Equal in potential, that same small cell phone’s body facilitates research into open public archives to expose us to ideas and inspirations in the hobby our imaginations will never measure the size of. The world is truly inside it.
The hobby era I grew up in:
- The train set is from the department store in the town we grew up in
- We met model railroaders in that same town
- We all modelled the same kind of railroading in the same scale
The Colin Binnie, Merioneth Railway Society, quote I shared above is a wonderful example of this change:
- Often the nature of our craft is formed by the intersection of geographically immediate influences but our community has changed vastly.
- Our community can still exist of local modellers but it need no longer do so.
I read that Colin Binnie quote, sitting on my couch, late one night when I couldn’t sleep. Glass of wine at one hand and my phone in the other. In the 1980’s I had read an article on Mamod garden railways in which the modeller used “Binnie skips” as inexpensive rolling stock for his model locomotive to pull. About two weeks before the sleepless night I had quickly Googled to see if I could find more information about those Binnie skips. They were still available and the website had a Shopify-powered website and a few seconds later, and a quick finger touch on ApplePay, I ordered some of my own Binnie skips along with a really fun bunch of other parts. The website produced an electronic receipt and once my order was shipped: tracking information. The next day Peter Binnie sent me the most charming personal email. Something to the effect of: “I didn’t recognize your name. Thank you for the order. Here’s a bunch of wonderful resources to help you on your 16mm scale journey. Hope you enjoy the kits. Let me know if you need any help.” In his email he shared links to the Merioneth Railway Society and their newsletters and to a website he had created to share the record of his father’s work. Holy crap, think about it: most brick-and-mortar hobbyshops still greet you with: “Are you going to buy something? If not get out.” so one last point:
- The ideals of promoting the hobby have already changed because the world our hobby is a derivative of has itself changed.
- We’ve escape the box and we’re not going back.
The constant remains that we are connecting with this hobby for reasons beyond nostalgia or craft skills alone. Train-themed marketing is comforting but not a particularly effective investment in making model railroaders out of ordinary people. The strength of our connection originates in a place far deeper in our soul. The beauty of this connection is such a compliment to our characters that our loved ones encourage our exploration of what it means and how our application of the hobby creates a space for us to express a part of our voice.
Last October I drove a round-trip to Montréal, by myself, and caught up on a library of podcasts I had been looking forward to listening to. Obviously I talked to myself and pretended myself into many of those conversations. Warmed by diverse conversation I thought as much about the myopia our hobby forces upon itself, insisting on a hyper-focussed impression of what it can be, as I did the way those that I to listen shapes how close I can to the person I’d like to be. The community of my formative years in the hobby existed in an entire world that was the pages of two monthly magazines. Belonging to and being a model railroader was a devotional act shaped by their promise. That was completely not wrong and I have only fond memories of what it felt like to be a part of something by submitting to those articles and the dreams inspired by their pages. As we contrast today’s experience we have access to so much more diversity and diversity is good. All that difference of opinion makes us healthier if we welcome it in. In an episode of Milk Street, Christopher Kimball summarized an interview as: “reminds us that a cook book is first a book and must delight our imagination as much as inform our craft.”
I treasure my memories of train sets forty years ago and describe them with as much curiousity-fueled enthusiasm as I received the most recent edition of the 2mm Association’s magazine. I feel so ready to welcome a conversation about our influences, how good they made us feel, and what we’re trying to form in the medium of this hobby. Not just a conversation between the nostalgia-addicted but also the curious, the imaginative; because of all the skills this hobby invites us to practice, imagination and curiousity are the ones that will serve who we’ll become best. We seldom get to know what we did when something “goes right” but we never forget that feeling we were chasing.
Where am I? How did I get here? What can we do here?
Categories: How I think