American Flyer Displays

Layout in a Box

Trainorama
Trainorama
Scenarama
Scenarama
All Aboard Sets
All Aboard
Tom Thumb Fold-away
Tom Thumb

Let's face it.  As kids, most of us didn't want just a train set running on simple circle or even an oval of track. We wanted a train layout.  Something like the 2nd floor Gilbert Hall of Science Layout or one of the big department store layouts would do nicely, even if we had to scale it down to whatever space we could get from mom and dad.  To my mind, the 1952 catalog, with its stark illustrations of pitiful circles of track, or in the better sets, ovals of track, displaying the rolling stock was downright depressing and not a real good marketing idea.  It brought home with startling clarity what we were actually getting.  While that left it up to us to make it into the layout we really wanted, it would have been nice to get the makings of a real layout in one box.   Most importantly it would have been quicker and as kids quicker was definitely better.  Instant gratification was as popular then as it is now.  Sure, we would add our own touches to make it our own, but we would have been a lot closer to the end result we wanted.

Gilbert had no trouble creating dealer display layouts, containing more or less scenery, as shown elsewhere on this website, but they were costly construction projects and not something that could be mass produced.  While they were generally not available to consumers, their potential as a consumer product did not go unnoticed by Gilbert, who stressed that they could be sold to model railroad hobbyists after they had served their initial purpose as a sales display.

Starting even with the earliest sets, Gilbert would add accessories to increase the desirability of various sets, but the accessories weren't the answer.  After all, we could save up and buy the accessories later ourselves. What was hard for us was the scenery.  As a kid, I remember trying to do scenery but ending up with droopy mountains that sloped at unnatural angles and I won't even get started on the mess.

There were also third party products designed to simplify the task of creating a reasonably realistic American  Flyer layout.  One of these was the Tom Thumb Fold-Away Train town offered by a company in Waterbury, Connecticut. 

Trainorama

Trainorama Display
Trainorama - 1953
Illustration courtesy of Lonny Beno

Full View from Trainorama Dealer Brochure
Centerfold Illustration from D1706 Brochure
Courtesy of Lonny Beno

Trainorama Poster  Trainorama Dealer Brochure - D1706  Trainorama at the Gilbert Gallery

Finally, in 1953, Gilbert created the 790 (also marketed as a 791) Trainorama display. It wasn't a fully sceniced layout but it was three dimensional and went a long ways toward creating the illusion of a realistic setting for the trains.

This display was sold separately but was also included in several sets, none of which were cataloged. According to The Almost Complete Guide To American Flyer Sets, by Robert Tufts, these sets and their contents were as follows:

Sets Containing the 790 (791) Trainorama Display
Set Number Rolling Stock Track Other Accessories
6SP (1953) 356 Silver Bullet, 606 AFL Crane, 607 AFL Boom Car Over/Under Figure 8 747 Cardboard Trestle
11SP (1954) 356 Silver Bullet, 3-655 Silver Bullet Coaches, 636 Erie Flat, 613 Great Northern Boxcar Over/Under Figure 8 747 Cardboard Trestle
109 (1955) 4778 Silver Flash AB, 928 New Haven Log Car, 929 Missouri Pacific Stock Car, 940 Wabash Hopper, 937 MKT Boxcar, 930 Caboose 60" Oval
(2 Straight each side)
795 Station & Terminal
117 (1955) 354 Silver Bullet, 2-955S Coaches Over/Under Figure 8 747 Cardboard Trestle, 795 Station & Terminal
118 (1955) 287 Pacific, 941 Frisco Gondola, 923 Illinois Central Reefer, 925 Gulf Tank Car, 938 Caboose Over/Under Figure 8 747 Cardboard Trestle, 795 Station & Terminal, 566 Whistling Billboard,
123 (1955) 326 Hudson, 928 New Haven Log Car, 936, 937 MKT Boxcar, 946, 925 Gulf Tank Car, 930 Caboose 70" Oval
(3 straight each side)
N/A

Very little documentation is available for the 6SP and 11SP sets other than newspaper ads for the retailers selling them.  All of these uncataloged sets were an attempt to unload excess inventory. Whether the inclusion of the Trainorama display was designed as an enticement to purchase the excess inventory, or was, in itself, excess inventory, is a question that remains.

Scenarama (Scenic-rama)  Scenarama Patent 

20048 set20048 Scena-Rama Set - 1959 photo of panel & track
Panel with track installed
Photos courtesy of David Dewey

28143
28143 Scenic Action Display - 1959-60
Catalog illustration courtesy of rfgco.com

Above you will find three illustrations of the Scena-Rama or Scenic-Rama system developed in 1959.   The top illustrations are photos of the 20048 set of marketed in 1959 and a photo of a panel with track installed.  These same scenic panels, shown in the lower illustration, were marketed to dealers as a dealer sales display.  A simple circular version consisting of only 4 panels was also marketed to dealers in 1959.  Whether the idea was primarily aimed at dealers or the general public, it was short lived.  David Dewey who owns a 20048 set thinks it was a test marketing since it was only made available in that one department store special set.  If it was a test marketing, it wasn't a very vigorous one.  This set didn't go all the way to instant gratification, though, as it still required the use of imagination to paint the scenic panels.  That was pretty much in line with the general Gilbert philosophy that toys should be designed to promote creativity.  Still, because of its construction, it didn't encourage the purchase of accessories, which had also been a part of the Gilbert philosophy. 

The System

They say "a picture is worth a thousand words."   If you ever wondered what those thousand words would look like, all you have to do is read a patent application description of an invention.  The patent credits this invention not to Russell Smith and/or Gabe Monaco, the usual Gilbert inventors, but rather to Guy Schumacher, a Gilbert Executive and former plant superintendent.

After reviewing patent 3,025,626 covering the Scena-rama system, I think that Guy Schumacher had an excellent idea, but it was not fully developed and had several issues. 

Durability of the Construction Material

First of all, the patent set out the construction material as "a plastic or fibrous material such a papier-mâché deposited upon or formed between molding patterns."  It notes that the surface would be molded with upraised hills and depressions.   The depressions in addition to preventing the surface of the panel from looking unnaturally flat, also served as a multitude of feet to support the raised surface of the panel.  The hills were supposed to be placed irregularly in relation to the center of the panel so that the panels would not produce symmetrical features when placed together.  Also some of the hills were to mate with their other halves on adjacent panels, producing hills that extended from one panel to the next.  Finally, there were multiple flat areas for the placement of track.  Apparently the chosen material for construction was papier-mâché, which caused the end product to resemble the material used in egg cartons.   I don't really think these panels were intended to be assembled and disassembled, as this papier-mâché construction was not durable enough for this.

Track Length problems

The patent application also notes that the optimal sizing of the panels would be to equal to a multiple of the sizes of straight track available.  This would allow the track section ends to match the panel ends.  Using the example of a 24 inch square panel, it notes that such a size would accommodate 6, 8, or 12 inch track sections, none of which were available from Gilbert.  If 2-10 inch sections were used, the curved track from the end panels would have to be brought in 2 inches on each side.   Whether or not this would allow proper placement of the track on the curve right of way on the panels is questionable unless excess space is included in the right of way to allow this.  Note that the photo of the 28143 dealer display above shows two straight sections with the curves encroaching on the center panel.

Could they have solved this problem by changing the panel sizes?  While any radius can be fitted on a corner panel with the rail ends abutting the edges, the panel size must be at least a little larger than the radius of the curves.  With 20 inch radius curves, the very minimum size they could have used would have been 22-23 inches and that would still be too long for 2-10 inch straight sections of track.  They could have made 30 inch side panels for the straight sections, but the panels in this system were designed so that any panel could accommodate either straight or curved track.  Unless they were willing to create new track sections for this system, the straight sections would not fill the total length of a panel.  As it was, the design as manufactured required the track placement to be a separate operation from panel assembly.  It is interesting to note that the illustrations of possible layout configurations shown in the patent application show two straight sections reaching from edge to edge of the presumably 24 inch panels.  In the illustration of the figure 8, 45 degree curved sections are employed with two sections to a 90 degree curve, rather than the normal 3 - 30 degree sections.

Symmetry vs. Randomness

Another problem facing Gilbert with these panels was that they appear to be seeking to emulate wide open country, a very non symmetrical setting, yet they needed the panels to have enough symmetry to be placed together with roadways and track ways matching from panel to panel.

The Patent

The interesting thing about this patent is that it is a very generic patent and covers many different possible implementations, including the All Aboard Sets.   While there is another patent for the All Aboard system that covers the improvements made to cure many of the issues discussed above, the manufacture of the All Aboard sets was done under this earlier patent, which is clearly stamped on the bottom of each All Aboard panel.

All Aboard Sets  All Aboard Patent  All Aboard Sets TV Advertisement

All Aboard Sets
Catalog illustration courtesy of
myflyertrains.org

In 1962, Jack Wrather and his Wrather Corporation obtained a controlling interest in Gilbert through the purchase of stock owned by the Gilbert family.  Though his wealth came from the petroleum industry, Wrather was best known as a television producer whose credits included the Lone Ranger and Lassie.  He was not familiar with the toy business and when he took over Gilbert, he turned to people he trusted for advice.  One of these was Marvin Glass.  He and his company were the face of the new toy industry.  He didn't manufacture toys, but only designed them.   The manufacturing was left to other companies whom he would license to produce the toys he and his team designed.   He was the source of such popular toys as Ants in the Pants, Mouse Trap, and the game Operation.  At Gilbert, he created the James Bond line of toys, in addition to the All Aboard sets.

His business arrangement with the Wrather run Gilbert Co. is not clear, but he appears to be the force behind the All Aboard sets.   On the back of each panel, in addition to the Scena-Rama patent number is the notation "© 1964 Marvin Glass and Associates."  This is a bit unusual as copyrights usually relate to artistic creations, whether visual or written.  Presumably this copyright relates to the art work involved in the design of the panel surfaces.  The 1964 date is significant as it predates the February 4, 1965 filing of the patent that clearly covers the improvements in the panel system that constituted the All Aboard system.  Ironically, that patent was granted in November 1967, at least 10 months after Gilbert had filed for bankruptcy in January 1967.

It is not exactly clear what caused Glass to turn his attention to the Scena-Rama Patent which had been filed in 1958, but it is clear that he definitely improved it by his additions.

First of all he dealt with the durability issue by changing the material to plastic as was envisioned as a possibility in the original patent.  This allowed the layout to be a non-permanent setup which could be easily assembled, taken down, or reconfigured.  Second, he solved the track length issue by making the track an integral part of the panel.  Finally, he changed the setting from open hills to a small community with streets, which allowed the symmetry required for the versatile connection of the panels, but did not conflict with the design elements of the scenic setting.  The Scenarama system was based on identical panels which could accommodate straight track, curved track and even switches.  The All Aboard system replaced these identical panels with a limited number of unique panels.  These different panel types also added variety to the completed layout. 

Finally, he added a secure joining mechanism for the panels which was integrated with  a fixed voltage buss for powering switches and other possible accessories.  As an added bonus, the reduced radius Pikemaster track that had been introduced in 1961 enabled him to reduce the panel size.

The new system was closer to the instant gratification that was sought by the toy industry of that era and enabled the purchaser to have quick access to an aesthetically pleasing model railroad system.  As to storage, David Dewey thinks the 24 inch panels of his Scena-rama system are easier to store because they stack more easily as the scenery is not so prominent.  I have found that the All Aboard panels are also stackable, if the added scenic items, including the additional scenic features of the curved panels, are removed.  David Dewey has noted that the All Aboard system traded creativity for instant gratification.  There was minimal opportunity to enhance the scenic features.  The scene was standardized and, aside from substituting or adding a new building, there wasn't much you could do with the setup except add panels and make it bigger.  Also, like the Scena-rama panels, it didn't provide much opportunity for the integration of accessories into the layout.  Maybe it was hoped that panel purchases would replace accessory purchases.

As good a marketing idea as it was, it was quite a departure from the traditional Gilbert vision for toys.  It was unfortunate that it came too late to save Gilbert.  Interest in toy trains was waning and even this ingenious idea couldn't revive that interest.

There are several excellent sites that fully explore these sets.  I won't duplicate what is already there, but simply direct you to the links below.  Be sure to take a look at the 1965 Press Kit at myflyertrains.org as it contains lots of information on the All Aboard sets.

All Aboard Sets WebsiteAll Aboard Sets at Myflyertrains WebsiteAll Aboard Sets at S-Trains Website1965 Press Kit at Myflyertrains Website

Tom Thumb Fold-Away Train Town

This was a third party product that was manufactured by the Tom Thumb Train Town Corporation of Waterbury, Connecticut.  It was an ingenious system that allowed you to fold a 4x6 layout down to fit in a 2x3 box with the track left mounted on it.  It was prewired to provide power to the track via spring contacts under the rails.  This allowed track to be removed at the joints of the layout and made it possible to remove the track pins at the joints in the panels.  In order to accommodate the track on the panels that had to fold inward, a small spacing panel was included at the joint of those two panels.   The panels when folded out do not appear to have had any framework to hold them in place allowing the addition of legs.   Apparently the layout was designed for floor use or on a table big enough to provide full support for a 4x6 layout .  The system provided hook ups for a wide variety of accessories, including the talking station.  The station operated as designed provided the direction of the train clockwise.   

I have never seen an actual example of this set which was sold to provide a place to set up the buyers own train set.   It would be interesting to see the materials of which the set was constructed and exactly how the "trimount" connectors worked.  If you have any other information on this set, please let me know.

.Track Contacts


 

Many thanks to Lonny Beno, David Dewey, and Daryl Olszeski for their assistance in developing this page.