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1957 Dream Layout
By Joseph H. Lechner
Ask collectors to name the greatest toy train wishbook of all time, and you’re
sure to get more than a few votes for Lionel’s 1957 consumer catalog.
It was a great year for 3-rail trains. The Lion offered more sets, and a greater
variety of cars and accessories, than ever before. Outstanding new items in
1957 included Super “O” track, the Norfolk and Western “J” class
4-8-4, and the coveted Canadian Pacific passenger set. In retrospect, 1957
turned out to be the last “pure” Lionel train line. In subsequent
postwar catalogs, 3-rail trains competed for attention with HO trains, race
cars, rockets, atomic energy paraphernalia, phonographs, and science kits.
The purpose of any catalog is to make prospective customers want your merchandise.
In this respect, Lionel’s 1957 issue succeeds brilliantly. Robert Sherman’s
artwork makes the trains seem bigger than life. The illustrations show you
how each set would look when running on a well-equipped layout. No; better
yet, they portray the idealized world that you will create in your imagination
while you play with Lionel trains.
Lionel catalog art usually presented toys as if they were full-sized
trains. The illustrator gave them a route to run on, places to
go, freight and passengers to deliver, and enthusiastic spectators
to watch them pass by. When you see the #2331 Virginian on the
page, you imagine that you are standing at trackside somewhere
in Appalachia watching a real Fairbanks-Morse Trainmaster roar
upgrade. No full-sized objects are in the picture to spoil the
illusion. You rarely see a transformer, a control panel or the
boards at the edge of the layout; you never see walls, windows
or household objects.
A remarkable exception is this scene from the back cover of Lionel’s
1957 catalog. It stands alone among postwar illustrations by showing us the
complete setting of a home layout, including furniture, décor, and hobby
items not directly related to model railroading. What do you notice when you
view this illustration?
A collector of premium postwar trains will notice that the Norfolk
and Western steam locomotive seems to be the more desirable long-stripe
version. This particular Class J is pulling a set of 2530 series
streamlined passenger cars. Lionel never cataloged #746 in a
passenger set, but N&W designed its J’s with fast passenger
service in mind, so the consist is certainly prototypical. A
collector would also immediately spot that rare Jersey Central
Trainmaster rolling past the station. High-horsepower Fairbanks
Morse diesels were used primarily for freight, although Lionel
cataloged #2341 only in a passenger set. Boxcar aficionados would
carefully inspect that 6464-300 closely to ascertain that it
is the more common solid-yellow-door type rather than the scarce
variation with a green stripe through the door. They will wish
the right side of the car were completely visible because they’re
wondering whether the Rutland herald is outlined in green or
An operator who is familiar with O 3-rail trains might think that the #2341
is underemployed hauling a four-car freight. The twin-motored Trainmaster was
one of Lionel’s best pullers, easily capable of handling a twelve-car
train. Surely it belongs on the main line. An operator will wonder how that
#3927 track cleaning car is going to get off its siding, since it has no coupler
in the direction facing the locomotive. He will also worry what will happen
to the #602 Seaboard if it continues on its present route and runs smack into
a steel trestle.
Someone who is familiar with real railroads may wonder why the #415 fueling
station and #352 icing station are located along the main line, where diesels
and reefers would obstruct traffic as they’re being serviced. Why does
the #450 signal bridge span a yard track that leads to the transfer table?
Most railroads would have used a dwarf signal in that location. Why is the
water tank located at the start of a 5% upgrade—and on a sharp curve
to boot? Even the mighty #746 would have difficulty restarting its train after
pausing for water there.
Visitors who are not particularly knowledgeable about toy trains would still
appreciate the finished appearance of the layout. No bare plywood can be seen
on this table top. This layout looks like the real world in miniature. Every
square inch is appropriately landscaped with grass, trees, mountains, a river,
highways, and structures.
Even a guest with only passing interest in trains would surely notice the layout’s
attractive underpinnings. A far cry from the unpainted sawhorses and 4x8 plywood
that are usually depicted in postwar catalogs, this train table is a piece
of fine furniture with cupboards, drawers, mahogany panels, and polished brass
fittings. Who ever said that a model railroad had to be an interior decorator’s
What’s more, this layout is the centerpiece of a recreation room that
is obviously used and enjoyed by every member of the family. Even though it
is obviously in the basement, this is an inviting, fully-finished basement.
The tiled floor has been cleaned and waxed recently, and it really shines.
The walls are tastefully decorated with paneling and wallpaper. This room is
much better illuminated than most basements. Even the descending stairway has
been enclosed with painted drywall.
There are plenty of accommodations here for activities other than railroading.
The upholstered furniture, lamp, end table and throw rug provide a place for
quiet conversation or reading. The bar and stools at left suggest that this
family has enjoyed many a meal or snack there. That alcove at the back houses
Dad’s fishing rods and lures, and shows off a photo of his prize catch.
The artist made sure to include a commercial for Airex, a line of fishing tackle
that was marketed by Lionel in the late 1950s. Viewing the same scene today,
we might assume the Airex poster was part of a collection of Lionel memorabilia.
This catalog art from Lionel’s golden era still offers valuable lessons
for collectors / operators today. Careful attention to scenery, benchwork and
décor will make your train room a more attractive place for family members