The Model and History
Yes, they have some...
Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.
Models… They Were Never Just for Kids
Many of my readers grew up in the heyday of the plastic modeling industry in the ‘50s and ‘60s, building those old Monogram and Aurora kits or collecting the 1/24th scale AMT models that car dealers gave away. Before then, there were wooden model kits and there were plans for models that had to be hand-cut….but…
It started in the 1920s
A firm in Chicago, Hawk Model Company, made solid wood models beginning in 1928, adding injection molded plastic propellers during the Depression. In Britain in 1936, International Aircraft Limited under the Frog brand (Flies right off the ground) introduced a 1/72nd scale model called a Penguin…because it couldn’t fly. Made of cellulose acetate—very fragile and flammable—sales were enough to encourage more development…by the military. Both Hawk and Frog made identification models during WWII in both wood and plastic—acetate and injection-molded polystyrene.
But acetate models were fragile, and polystyrene took over in the civilian market after WWII.
In 1952, Aurora Plastics Corporation in Brooklyn, New York, started the U-Make-It line with their 1/48th scale F9F Panther and F-90 fighter kits in polystyrene. They competed in the hobby market with Chicago’s Monogram, which had been making wood ship models since 1945. There was also the Revell company out of California, which at first offered repackaged English kits and static toys. But in 1953, they offered a kit of Iowa class battleship USS Missouri that was said to have been so accurate the Soviets used them to fill in gaps in their intelligence.
And there were more…
Competition for the model market was fierce. AMT (Aluminum Model Toys) Corporation, out of Troy, Michigan, made 1/25 scale die cast aluminum promotional car models for Ford dealers in 1948, but switched to injection molded plastic in 1949. A little-known outfit called SMP Manufacturing probably started the car model wave with annual car kits that could be built as stock, custom or racing versions.
Fifty years on…
Monogram was bought and combined with Revell in 1986. Lesney bought AMT—the company that makes Matchbox cars—in 1978: the firm is still in Troy and is reissuing some classics. Ah, well. These days, you can get a pretty penny for those models we blew up in our backyards.
All of this came from a long tradition of people building replicas of the world around them.
The model-building hobby I inherited from my father—he called it butchering balsa—has been mine since I can remember, but I also know that these smaller versions of big stuff have been around since the first animals were carved for whatever reason by prehistoric people. We have used them for worship, for toys, for memorials, for target identification and for ornamentation. They’ve been found in tombs, in caves, and in buried homes. They have always been with us.
Then, why do so many disdain hobby model builders?
Model railways are often called “kid’s toys” even though the operators sometimes have written schedules. Some refer to model ships that can take years to make as “toy boats.” Yes, model farms are quaint, but where’s the harm? Even building model space ships can come under ridicule, or those movie monster kits from jour childhood.
Are these reproductions of our surroundings or our imaginations that far removed from fantasy football teams?
All these model kits have noble origins in small-scale reproductions made by artisans, either on commission or for sheer enjoyment. Yes, some were toys made for children, but some were serious attempts at recreating, in miniature, the real world. Model railroaders refer to the trains that they replicate “prototypes.” Model car builders sometimes call the full-size versions of their creations “garage versions.” Builders of model sailing ships—those intrepid souls who can tie those tiny knots and reeve those blocks—call the original ships simply by name.
And they pay through the nose for their hobbies.
A ship kit can cost over a thousand dollars, take years to make…and still need material to finish. There’s “subscription” armor kits that, after you’ve paid about $1,200, will yield a jeep…yeah. There’s big money in model trains, too: a locomotive can cost $500 and more; some rolling stock with “authentic” decals can run almost as much. And once you lay all that track and plant all those fake trees, you of course need buildings and roads and sidewalks and…you get the idea.
As Aristotle suggested, the purpose is the pleasure in the doing.
Though there’s a certain fascination in the miniature world, just having the leisure time and the skill to build models is its own reward. These days, having the spare cash to afford the materials can also be an issue, but resourceful hobbyists can find what they need about anywhere. Contests can yield cash rewards, but usually just trophies and bragging rights.
But the post-WWII generations were the first that could afford the time and resources for model hobbies on larger scales.
There were models before 1945, but nothing like there were after it. They weren’t just plastic, but any other materials. Rural electrification brought better light, but it also brought electric motors to the farms and suburbs, easing much of the drudgery of household chores. That freed up time and energy to make what we saw around us, and some of what we did not.
The biggest issue for any model builder is…what to do with it once it’s built?
My dear wife—and probably many others—refer to my completed creations as dust collectors…which of course they do. Since I barely have space for the books I have, it’s a problem. Where am I going with that Mosquito in USAAF livery once I build it? Well, I just might get another plastic storage container and stack it with the rest of ‘em. That Constitution, though…two feet tall once she’s done…and that Victory’s nearly three…and three long from bowsprit to stern gallery…
The February 26th Incident
The What, Again?
On 18 February:
1861: In Montgomery, Alabama, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the Confederate States of America. He was supposed to serve a single six-year-term; his country ceased to exist in a little over four. On the same day, Victor Emmanuel II became the first king of Italy since Odo in the 9th century.
1967: J. Robert Oppenheimer died in Princeton, New Jersey. Congress vilified the overseer of the Manhattan Project and inheritor of the Einstein chair at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study as a communist in the 1950s. Never truly exonerated, he died possibly of disappointment.
And today is NATIONAL DRINK WINE DAY, for whatever reason. I don’t imbibe the stuff much myself, but hey, different strokes, right?