Tuesday, October 25, 2011

High Marx -- the 413a Switchman Tower

Yesterday I wrote about the Marx 413a Switchman Tower and 416 Twin Floodlight Towers I picked up at the TCA York train meet. That post was about why I wanted them.

Although these aren't especially valuable or rare toy train accessories (given their both were manufactured over 70 years ago), they have -- in my opinion -- a distinct charm.

The Louis Marx Co. specialized in low-cost toys. At the same time, they made the best quality playthings as they could. The results were often ingenious when you stop to think about them.

Take the Marx 413a switchman tower.

This illuminated accessory could be placed on any O-gauge layout of the 1930's and look great -- even with Lionel equipment, the non plus ultra of toy trains. At that time, sheet metal was the primary material for these types of toys. Lionel stamped a lot of detail into the surfaces of their trains and accessories.

But stamping is expensive. Marx's solution was to economize on construction, using flat surfaces wherever possible, and instead use attractive and detailed lithography to decorate their products. The end result were trains and accessories that were almost as attractive as Lionel's offerings, but offered at a fraction of the price.

Take a close look at the switchman tower. Three sides have lithographed decoration. But there's a lot going on. A crewman throws a switch, a telegraph operator receives a message (you can tell from the cartoon electric bolts in the air) and it looks like someone's about to open the door.

These are illustrations that a child's imagination could run with!

The fourth side had a large window with a red translucent pane. Why red? Because it's a dramatic color, and because it prevents you from seeing inside the tower like a clear pane would (there's only has a light socket inside).

Why not have all the windows punched out? Because the more stamping  you do to the metal, the more it costs to create the dyes. And the frame becomes weaker and more difficult to bend into shape -- the tower would become more labor-intensive to build, plus the reject rate would rise, both adding to the cost of the piece.

One other thing: the base for the tower is the same as the bottom of the shed. Using one piece twice saves money, too.

So there it is, the Marx switchman's tower. Lithographed on three sides, illuminated on the fourth. Not rare (Marx toys were always popular and always shipped in volume), nor expensive -- this one cost me $19.00. But still a great deal of fun, and something that adds a certain retro charm to my layout.

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