The online magazine on the history and operation of vintage scale model trains in American OO gauge

Sunday, March 10, 2013

A Look at the Early Years of Scale-Craft Working Models, 1933-34

While their OO line was not introduced until 1937, Scale-Craft had been a leader in the scale model railroad industry for some time even by then. On the occasion of the third change of ownership of the firm, an article in the December, 1946 issue of The Model Railroader gives this great overview of the early years of Scale-Craft.
The Scale-Craft firm was originally organized in 1933 by Clifford Smith. The plant was located on the north side of Chicago, and here were designed the first mass-produced model railroad items, including a Pennsylvania K-4 Pacific locomotive and freight and passenger cars in O gauge. Mail order sales methods were used to acquaint the public with the hobby and in fact this original Scale-Craft firm had a large part in the early beginnings of The Model Railroader magazine when its mailing list was loaned for Model Railroader circulation promotion and resulted in the first subscription list of more than 1000. 
In spite of the fact that he built his firm up to the largest in the model railroad manufacturing field (and that wasn’t very big in 1936) Clifford Smith was forced to sell his business for reasons curiously similar to those which have caused the current change in ownership of Scale-Craft. Clifford Smith’s father runs a large correspondence school business in Chicago and wanted his son back in the business with him, so with reluctance enthusiastic model railroader Smith sold his business to enthusiastic model railroader [Elliott] Donnelley. 
With that introduction, this article will primarily look at their 1934 catalog for more on model railroading in general and on Scale-Craft in particular, with all the photos seen in this article drawn from this 24-page catalog. The first image is the logo from the back cover. It was used with variations for many years in Scale-Craft advertising. Scale-Craft had for many years a “branding” problem. The official name of the firm originally was American Model Engineers, Inc., but they always made it clear that they were “manufacturers of Scale-Craft model railroad equipment.” After the purchase by Elliott Donnelley in 1936 it was known as Scale-Models, Inc., and then later as Scale-Craft in several variations of corporate title (Scale-Craft & Co., etc).

In light of the Model Railroader article from 1946 it is curious to me that Clifford Smith is listed as being vice president and general manager of the firm. The 1934 catalog does not actually list a president at all – perhaps the president was a silent partner? It would surely have taken a lot of capital start the firm in those hard times, and this first catalog was itself a pretty impressive undertaking. The photo and short profile offers a bit more information on Smith, and a two-page spread by Smith was devoted to “A Message to all Model Railroad Enthusiasts.” He begins,
This “SCALE-CRAFT MODEL BOOK” is presented to acquaint you with the SCALE-CRAFT line of models and model railroad equipment, and the men and methods behind them. But, before getting into the actual description of these fine models, I would like to shake hands, if possible, through this page, with every model railroad enthusiast in America, and the thousands of men who contemplate making this, the greatest of all hobbies, their hobby, too.
My Greetings to all of you….
We model railroaders believe there is no other hobby so full of sheer enjoyment and satisfaction. If you have never built or operated a model railroad, take our word for it, and join the ever increasing group of model railroad enthusiasts. You’ll have more fun than you ever had before in your life. 
Every piece of SCALE-CRAFT model railroad equipment described in this book has been designed especially for use on an operating model railroad system….
Before we could announce a single SCALE-CRAFT model, there were many decisions that had to be made. First, we had to decide what size our models would be. Though we realize that there are many who favor other scales, we selected ¼” scale (“O” gauge) because our investigations provided that fully 75% of all American model railroad enthusiasts preferred that gauge and scale over all others….
The selection of the models to offer was another problem….
In selecting the railroads whose equipment we would offer, we were guided entirely by information from model enthusiasts all over the country. Without question, more miniature railroads have been copied after the Pennsylvania system than any other. That railroad, therefore, had to be the first for which SCALE-CRAFT models were made available. Next in popularity is the New York Central, and there equipment was selected for the second group of SCALE-CRAFT models….
The first thought in the design of every SCALE-CRAFT model is to produce that model at a reasonable price, without in any way sacrificing realism, accuracy, or quality. Our second thought is to make the model simple in construction, so that the average man may build it easily in his own home, if he so desires. 
In an inset on the same pages it is noted that model railroading should not be confused with “toy railroading.” In many respects Smith is laying out not only the goals of his firm but also a new hobby market. Among the many photos in the catalog are views of the factory. The location was 2130 Lawrence Avenue, Chicago. While a similar building looks to be on the same site based on the Google street view, I don’t believe it is the same building as in 1934.

In light of the OO line this inset under the title “A Few Words about the Scale of Model Railroads” is of interest.
We are often asked why SCALE-CRAFT models are built only in ¼” scale, and why we don’t build models for “OO” or “Standard” gauge track.
Many model builders prefer “OO” or “HO” gauge to the more common “O” gauge. While recognizing the fact that both of these small gauges offer the advantage of requiring less space, and of permitting elaborate scenic installations, it is never-the-less very difficult to build a small model locomotive of this kind that will have enough power to pull a string of cars. In our opinion, these small gauges are impractical for an operating railroad. 
Ouch! That opinion would change soon.

Turning to the O gauge line of 1934, only parts of it are illustrated in the catalog, I suspect as much was in development at that date. The K4s Pacific, seen in this photo, was clearly the flagship model of the line and they had lines of passenger and freight cars, “see SCALE-CRAFT car data sheets for specifications of cars now available.” Items were available sold in three different “levels,” either “professional,” “hobby,” or “assembly.” More of the difficult machine work and drilling had been done on the hobby kits, and yet more on the assembly version of the locomotive. As they note on this page describing the kits, “Many men consider that half of the pleasure in model railroading comes from the building of their own models.”

Finally, they also sold a line of working signals and other electrical and power supply equipment and of course track and track equipment. Pretty much everything you might need to build an outside third rail O scale model railroad.

As already noted, Elliott Donnelley purchased Scale-Craft in 1936. Of the staff with photos and bios in the 1934 catalog the one who shows up in later, Donnelley-era catalogs is K. M. Boyd, such as in a photo seen in this article on their 1941 catalog. He was listed as advertising manager in 1941 and was certainly active in the firm when the OO line was developed.

This brings us around to why put together for an OO website this view of the early history of what was then still an O gauge manufacturer. With Donnelley onboard they were able to keep expanding their line, and as part of that expansion used the skills and manpower developed with the O gauge line to produce very similar models in American OO. In the pre-war period it was definitely cutting-edge what Scale-Craft was doing, and with the O line especially they were initially a dominate force in what was a dominant scale. In the post-war era they were still selling quality items but it hurt them that mainly they were pre-war products and in minority scales. But certainly we interested in American OO today owe something to Clifford Smith and his vision back in 1933, he got the ball rolling in a big way in a new hobby in hard times.

See this article for an overview of Scale-Craft OO production and history.

UPDATE: And I was recently pointed to the fact that this catalog was also discussed by Keith Wills in his "Collector Consist" article in the March, 1986 issue of RMC.

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