Play Stuff Blog

Little Boxes: Plasticville Plays at Post-World War II Suburbia  

Neighborhood shot from Edward Scissorhands film, 1990 Following World War II, William Levitt applied techniques of mass production to construction and built neighborhood developments on Long Island. Wartime shortages had crippled the housing industry, but Levitt knew that veterans would be eager to establish a normal life. When the Levitt homes hit the market in 1949, more than 1,400 sold on the first day. Over the years, post-World War II suburbia propelled a new type of domestic design and many Americans exceeded the standard of living appreciated by previous generations. Economists, sociologists, historians, and artists, among others, often deem suburbia as an uncontrolled sprawl that imposed conformity and served as a tool for segregation. Others get nostalgic about the suburban neighborhoods that shaped their childhoods. Director Tim Burton once told a reporter that “it’s not a bad place … it’s a place where there’s a lot of integrity.” As I prepared a display of train accessories to highlight at The Strong, I found this discussion especially pertinent to Plasticville, a brand of plastic toy train accessories by Bachmann Bros.

Bachmann Bros. originally manufactured celluloid hair combs and optical frames. In 1946, the company marketed injection molded fencing intended to serve as a “Christmas fence” for Yuletide displays. Rather than use the fencing for their Christmas gardens, consumers tended to incorporate it in their model train layouts. Bachmann caught onto the trend and began to add other accessories such as trees, bushes, and bridges. By 1950, Bachmann added houses and municipal buildings to the line and named it Plasticville U.S.A. With prices ranging from 39 to 99 cents (much lower than wood and lithographed toy buildings), children could afford to purchase a set from the hobby store or other local retailer. The sets also featured snap-together construction and required no glue to assemble. Plasticville quickly became a playtime staple.

Plasticville 1852 Ranch House construction setChildren growing up in the 1950s also often wanted to replicate the neighborhoods in which they lived through play. Unlike other manufacturers that often stuck to traditional platforms, stations, newsstands, and switch towers, Bachmann designers created kits that provided insights into everyday life. Plasticville provided “a city in a box” and included hardware stores, highway motels, supermarkets, trailer homes, airports, greenhouses, firehouses, schools, police stations, and ranch houses in pretty pastels and picturesque boxes. With a few dollars and a little imagination, a child could create a miniature ‘ville that resembled the one just outside of his window.

Plasticville captured the spirit of early post-war America. People were excited about the potential of new innovations such as the more than 500 plastics that hit the market following the war. The possibility of affordable tract housing with nearby amenities also encouraged feelings of optimism. Plasticville continues to represent the suburban tranquility dreamt up more than 60 years ago.