Lionelville: A Suburb In Your Cellar

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THE ARTICLE ON the rise of the American suburb by John R. Stilgoe (February/March 1984) was illustrated with seed catalogs, paintings, trade cards, magazine covers—but nowhere with one of the most appealing of suburbs: Lionelville.

Founded in of 1900, the Lionel Company built increasingly detailed and impressive toy trains, and in time developed a whole tinplate world to go with them: signal towers and generating stations, depots and houses.

The company understood that the suburbs contained not only a clientele that could afford their trains but also homes with ample basements in which to build layouts. So it is not surprising that the buildings Lionel offered tended to mimic the suburban world that the railroads had summoned from quiet farmlands outside the cities. In lavish catalogs, the company displayed villas and bungalows and Lionel Terrace, a village garnished with lampposts, shrubbery, and a triumphant American flag as big as the houses themselves.

The page below, from the 1928 catalog, gives an idea of the tidy homes that flourished in Lionelville. The company kept right on adding suburban fixtures to their catalog into the straitened 1930s. “And the moral for economists,” said Fortune in 1932, “is clear: there is no depression if your heart is set on owning and landscaping a railroad.”