NEB&W Scenery, Structures, & Details - Introduction

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Scenery, Structures & Details - Introduction
Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents


The following is the introduction to our Scenery, Structures & Details book. Eventually I will rewrite it so it pertains to this web site.

In writing this, I realize that I compare many things with what I remember. I was born in 1950, so my memory only goes back to the mid to late '50's. At least if I remember certain features as being introduced, then they are probably too late for the era of our layout. Many of you reading this can remember back further, or have different experiences. I would love to share your experiences via this website, as I'm sure others would love to read about them.

Unlike our Freight Car Guide, our Scenery, Structures & Details book related to everyday life, so I seem to be following in the trail of not just a few freight car experts, but a herd of specialists. Fire trucks, gas stations, diners, etc. all have their devotees, mostly outside the realm of modeling, with books, journals, and societies. I will try to summarize this in relation to modeling and also give you sources to follow up on if you want to explore any facet in more detail.

Steam-era modelers might be the first to recognize that this era deserves to be studied now, while these memories (and we) are still alive.

If I could go back in time to the 1893 Columbian Exposition, and take one work to show off the progress of the last century, it would be Jurassic Park, both the movie and the book together. (The book goes into more detail, but the dinosaurs in the movie are so convincing.) This includes the two most important developments, (in my opinion) genetics and computers. The tampering of the Park's computer was the important part of the plot but also the use of computer animation in creating the dinosaurs shows the power of this new technology. The other part was the potential of genetic engineering. (Of course, author Michael Crichton's moral was that use of these technologies was unwise.) In 1893, neither idea was even dreamed about.

The two technologies are related. The computer and related products represent humans' increasing ease at manipulating data. Genetics represents how living things use internal data exchange to turn on and off enzymes, controlling the functions of living organisms. Thus you can say that we are moving into the Information Age.

But both of these are still in their infancy. I remember club member Geoff Hubbs being the first person I knew to buy a home computer, around 1982 or '83. Genetic engineering is still promise, not practice. And it will be some time after a general application of each that society will show the effects, such as computers allowing the wholesale change from commuting to working at home. Predictions are made that at some point where you live will have no effect on where you "go" to school or where you work. (Further down the line - what happens when virtual reality is found more attractive than real reality?)

Around WWI, by whatever statistic you use, railroads reached their peak, whether total mileage or number of passengers carried, or whatever. Yet Ford had just brought the automobile into the reach of the average citizen. Some of the consequences of this, along with other developments (women's suffrage, Freud, the Titanic, the War, Prohibition, the closing of the Frontier, the curtailing of immigration. . . ) could be traced to the social upheaval in the flapper age, the jazz age, about as total a change from Victorian culture as the social upheaval of the 1960's.

Crick and Watson deciphered the DNA molecule in 1953. In the mid-1950's, the Interstate highway system began. People moved from the cities to the suburbs. Jet travel came into being. Along came television, the counterculture beatnik and then the hippie movement, the transistor (vital for practical computers), the Vietnam War, Amtrak, Earth Day, the Energy Crunch, and so on.

The years from say WWI through the dieselization period really reflect two important trends. On one hand, many of the legacies of the Victorian period were still dominant, particularly fossilized in the steam railroad industry and its architectural environment. On the other hand, the change from mass mobility to personal mobility was just starting to have its impact. More people had cars in 1950 than people have computers today, so by then the transition was further along than the one to the information age. In fact, we are closer to the analogous point of where Ford had just made the car into a vehicle for the masses.

When I speak of steam-era (implying late steam-era), I mean this several decade shift from steam railroading to internal combustion autos. That diesels replaced steam on the railroads isn't so important as steam didn't work well in autos. I put the start of the Interstate Highway System as the peak of the auto age. (Modelers can replica later ages of railroading, but since railroading had by then such a diminished role in culture, it doesn't have the same significance to that world, shifting from autos to the information age. I don't mean to suggest you should model steam era as a research tool. You should model what era you like.)

By understanding this (late) steam-era, we can better understand our age by seeing what the world was like just before. And we can get some idea of where the still-forthcoming information age will take us, as we understand that so much of what we take for granted in today's culture is not permanent.

It has been said that those who don't study the past are doomed to repeat it. Does that mean if I DON'T write this, I will get to relive the steam era?

The Scientific Method

It is said that the Greeks invented science. They sought a logical explanation for all natural phenomena, and were not just willing to accept the universe as running at the capricious whim of the gods. They got the first step right, but many of their explanations were way off the mark.

For one thing, as a slave-based society, they felt it was beneath their dignity to put their ideas into practical use. The classic example is that Hero of Alexandria devised a steam engine, but he didn't go out and build a streamlined Hudson, a Stanley Steamer, or even a pumping device. He used it for a few novelty devices, while slaves did the manual work. This is one way that scientific theories are tested, even without the formality of tests, by utilizing the technology.

Another limitation was the Greek system of numbers. (We are familiar with the Roman system. I have no idea what the Greeks used, but it wasn't a decimal system.) For instance, around 1870, an Austrian Monk, Gregor Mendel, played around with breeding peas, and counted how many times certain simple characteristics showed up in following generations. If for instance the green pods showed up in 83 times out of 345 times, one can grasp that it is occurring one of four times. Such simple math for us was beyond all but the mathematical experts in ancient times. (CCCXLV divided by LXXXIII.) We also are familiar enough with numbers to know that the real world does not give perfect results.

The Greeks had the technology to have conducted Mendel's experiments, and could have advanced the science of genetics a thousand years, but they didn't have the math because they didn't have a useful number system. (The Greeks' lasting contribution was geometry, which as they developed it, did not use numbers. Instead they defined things as equal in length or not equal.) The Arabs invented the idea of zero as a place-saver, so that 32 divided by 8 is similar to 320 divided by 8 or 320 divided by 80 and so on. (The term "zero" comes from Arabic "sifr", meaning "empty" but also led to "cipher" meaning to figure out or calculate. The branch of math known as "algebra" came from Arabic, as did the word.)

In fact, we make a distinction between the "hard" sciences, such as physics and chemistry, and the "soft" sciences, economics, sociology, by how easy it is to measure the phenomenon being studied.

Francis Bacon is credited with the idea of the scientific method, which was to test theories with controls. A control is a duplication of every aspect except that which is being tested. One of the problems is that this is not always possible, except by making models in such sciences as astronomy, geology, evolution, and meteorology.

Models! Did I say MODELS? I will get back to them in a moment.

Technology And Culture

Up until the Industrial Revolution, culture was partially based on technology but more a matter of what in evolution would be call "genetic drift". The Darwin finches, for instance, evolved different beaks to eat different types of food on different islands because of environmental pressures. Genetic drift happens when there are no environmental pressures to force evolution. A small herd of grazing animals in one valley, genetically separated from a herd in another valley, will slowly "drift" by random mutations that have no difference in survival value. In one valley the horns may curl one way and in the other, curl the other.

Thus in human culture, people in one region may prefer hats with feathers and in another, hats decorated with fur. This may not be dependent on which animals or birds are easy to catch, or a special status because they are difficult to catch, but simply random changes. Up until 1800, technological changes came so slowly up that technology was not a big variation from culture to culture.

With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, technology began to change ever more quickly, and culture was ever pressed to adapt. Thus how the hats were decorated could be attributed to, say, better hunting weapons. All of sudden, maybe feathers, which were a status symbol, could be caught in great numbers (or made of plastic), so for a while, feathers would decorate everything. This would then be followed by a reaction, so that no feathers would be used.

Before the Industrial Revolution, such an increase would have come in gradually, and even if not, after a generation or two, hat decoration would return to a state of equilibrium. Now, just as plastic feathers are going out of fashion, plastic fur would be coming in (and nowadays, advertising would make sure the new materials would be pushed). And then neon-colored feathers, then battery-operated fur, then talking feathers, and so on.

As the technology increases come faster, culture lags further behind, and this discrepancy creates greater pressure that drives culture.

Our SS&D book started as discussions on how to model the world of the Northeast U.S. of half a century ago. The more I get into this, the more I find that the world is based on technology, although often what technology is not obvious at first. As a modeler, we have a unique perspective to see the world from a bird's eye view point. Modelers "test" these theories, not just observe and describe them. Since we share our work via layout visits and photos, we can study a wide range of how successful this knowledge is in describing the real world.

I am a proponent a modeling specific scenes, and a truly faithful copy, like a photograph, requires much less knowledge. (A camera is just a machine, not an artist, but it reproduces an image more faithfully than a Da Vinci or Rembrandt.) However, a layout scene is always a compromise. Many modelers take it a step back, and freelance scenes, and from that we can learn a lot from what doesn't work. When we look at any scene and see that it doesn't work then the next question is "why not?" Perhaps the colors are wrong, so then the question becomes, what are the right colors? In a contemporary scene, the modeler can unconsciously choose color schemes appropriate for the era. When a modeler chooses today's color schemes for yesterday's modeling, we become aware of the clash. This is almost the scientific method, in that a model layout can be a duplicate of the past except for the phenomenon being studied.

Now any historian could use the same trackside photos for this purpose, but a person who is actually trying to model a scene has a more discerning viewpoint. I know that often I look for a structure kit that we can use to kitbash for a particular prototype, and then I am even more aware of how much freelancing the kit manufacturers have done. Few Beaux Arts kits are available, for instance, so then I begin to see how common such a style is in the real world because I note how uncommon it is in the Walthers catalog. And I note how the decoration can't be kitbashed from available castings or kits, or European kits that superficially look okay.

I remember scratchbuilding the tower building from Chatham, NY. I had the tower itself done, but minus the brackets and cornice. The Norman heritage was striking at that point on the unfinished model, but was hidden by the Italianate work along the eaves on the prototype. Building a structure is akin to a biology dissection, but in reverse. And then comes the question of what type of fire hydrants should be used, where they should be placed, what color, etc.

Since I think that we modelers have a valuable viewpoint on the recent past culture, I've decided to expand it to matters beyond what can be modeled, or what matters to modelers. This should have indirect benefits to you modelers, as it might make you more aware of the differences of life a mere 50 years ago (even if you can remember back to then). And it might make you aware of some of the subtle technological consequences which might pop up somewhere else that might concern you.

I realize that many of the theories I make up, to connect cause and effect, may have as much validity as what the Greeks came up with. But the Greeks' theories were replaced by better and better ones, so the times when I'm totally off the mark should get someone to say: "Hey, that doesn't seem right. Here's a better theory."

For The Modeler

Before I get any more pretentious about writing the definite history about everything, let's get back to why you probably are paying to get on our site. This is not meant to be a website about explanations. The explanations should just be a minor part, the threads that tie the data together. Even if I make a wrong guess, an explanation might be fascinating enough or otherwise stick in memory to help you remember the facts.

Just as much as I've been struck by all the information out there for just about anything, especially the non-railroad items (fashion, architecture, gas stations, etc.), I also realize how much material there is to plow through to find nuggets of information for modeling. If you only decide to spend only a couple of hours a week on this hobby, I'm sure you want to spend it in your layout room, not the public library.

A book on history focuses on the first developments, the notable, and the trailing off. You can trace the steam engine back to Hero, but that doesn't mean Julius Cesar took the Flyer to visit Cleopatra. Leonardo Da Vinci sketched a design for a helicopter, but Washington didn't cross the Delaware with Hueys.

It took ideas and technology to make things work. Sometimes the needed technological development is something obscure like proper lubrication or the ability to machine steel. And the final thing can be the societal niche that needs to be there. The Greeks could have built diners - the Greeks of BC that is - but until the 1920's and a motoring public, there was little need.

The modeler wants to model the common, what the architects call the "vernacular". We rarely model the mansion up on the hill or a state capitol. We model the workers' housing, the shanties, the abandoned buildings.

Boy, is that information hard to come by. For one thing, that is why I keep coming back to what happened in Troy, or other areas we've modeled. Also, that means I can write about things of which I have personal modeling knowledge.

I know that this information does two things. Until Peter Magoun mentioned fire alarm boxes, I never paid any attention, so the first aspect is awareness. To bring this about is just to ask the right question. On the other hand, sometimes I'm afraid to model something because I might get it wrong. The other aspect s confidence, which means an answer, any answer. However, sometimes no answer, if the research was extensive enough, is an answer in itself.

Your Web-Site

I apologize as to the quality of the photo reproductions in the hard-copy of our Guides. I scanned them in on a top-of-the-line scanner, but they were printed on a laser printer with a 300 dpi resolution (dots per inch). That sounds like a great resolution, but the printer takes a 16 dot grid, four by four, to make a single halftone dot, so the real resolution was 75 dpi, essentially the same as newspapers. I took the halftone photo and pasted it to a page of pictures, and made a photocopy of the page so it can go through the final photocopy collating reproduction. Hence the resolution of the photos had to survive through two generations of photocopying.

In our NEB&W Guide To Steam-Era Freight Cars, each item is a unit that rolls on wheels and starts or ends at the couplers. Yes, there were some subdivisions, such as types of ends, roofs, etc., as well as overall discussions such as mix of cars or paint schemes. However, the organization of that was simply a matter of which cars to group with which.

Scenery, structures and details are more complex, as the subject matter is continuous. Scenes have to fit with one another, and they are composed of various elements, which in turn are composed of smaller parts. Should a swamp be discussed under water or foliage? Is a grade crossing a road subject or a track subject? Should roller skates be under a toys chapter or discussed under figures? Is a sidewalk elevator grate a sidewalk detail or a storefront detail?

What I have attempted to do, based loosely on the Walthers catalog, is to discuss scenery first, then buildings, then details. Before all of this I have put all the theoretical elements. Some of these you probably are going to wonder what they have to do with modeling, such as a discussion of vaudeville or food. However, I think these elements are important, as I expect to refer back to them to explain items later in the book. Since they relate to several things across the board, my attempt is to put these elements all together and get them out of the way first. Even if they don't relate to anything tangible, I think they can be important to help change your mind-set as to life back in steam-era days.

In a way, the three elements in the title ("Scenery, Structures, & Details") relate to both a time scale difference as well as a different magnitude of size. Scenery is generally measured in generations if not millions of years. A rock cut can be made in a few weeks, but will be there years after the track has been abandoned. A forest fire can change the landscape overnight, but the recovery will take decades to grow back the big trees. There aren't many scenery features that are era-dependent. Yes, some species such as elms have all but disappeared, and purple loosestrife has spread since the last steamers dropped their fires, but these are exceptions.

Structures have a different time frame. Stonehenge and the pyramids might have existed for thousands of years, but a couple of centuries, at least in this country, is a typical upper limit. It's not so much due to the survival of old buildings as that there weren't many buildings built back then. While there are new structures that represent changes in the half-century since the steam-era, such as McDonald's, in many cases the same structures could continue to serve. Yes, a coaling tower or an ash pit might be out of place in today's scene. However, it is more a matter of what colors the Victorian row houses are painted in any era, or what retail outlets are in the downtown stores, harness shops vs. video stores. Certainly there are drastic changes in such scenes in the particular cities we model on our layout, yet a parking lot is not that era-apparent as much as knowing the year when the Troy station was torn down.

Details are in a time frame down to the momentary. Animals, vehicles, and humans are constantly in motion, so that even as you place the drunk staggering down the alley, or the cars in the street, they are "put of date". The garbage cans put out at the curb or the wash on the line may be gone in just hours.

This is particularly important in trying to model specific scenes. If we want to model Troy's Fulton Street as of September 25, 1950, we would consider ourselves fortunate even to have found a photo that dates sometime in that decade. With that information, we can be relatively sure that we are modeling the trees and the houses correctly for 1950. However, we don't lose any sleep over a lack of a photo for that particular day. Instead, we feel totally comfortable making up most of the details, based on generalized knowledge. Sure, we want to get the parking meters and streetlights correct, but we could look in the City Directory to see who lived where, and then consult the vital statistics to figure out how old they were at that point, and track down their obituary (if they have since died) to get a picture of what they looked like.

With scenery, much of the work is a way to suggest it rather than actually model it. Mountains and clouds are seen only from a distance, as they are so vast. Trees are not leaf for leaf, or even matched so much species by species, as a forest is so vast. Techniques are sought mostly for the speed of modeling these as how close they are. One could insert individual strands of grass, but the technique sought by most modelers is an ability to model a field.

There is a great temptation to continue a chapter from say fire stations to fire trucks to firemen's uniforms, or railroad stations to station signs to benches to baggage wagons. This has happened in some chapters where in the narrowing down of the focus I have only a few things to discuss, and they don't warrant a separate chapter. Then a little more information comes to light, and eventually I break it off and "bud" a new chapter. However, in general, I've tried to separate details that are discrete into different chapters. For instance, a Preiser figure of a boy might be pulling a wagon, so maybe a wagon should be discussed under figures. That a wagon is a separate detail is more clear cut than roller skates on a figure.

So there is logic to my decisions as to what goes where. There are enough times when I try to find where I placed something, and if I have trouble finding things, and I made the decision, I don't envy you. Hopefully, the Table of Contents, but I consider that the last resort. I just want you to know that location was not arbitrary and I did give this matter great thought, even when you cuss me because it isn't obvious.

With the freight car book, I think the index is one of the most important aspects, as it automatically gives you an overview of each road's cars, and the relative importance of each. This meant that if I introduced a new chapter or new pages, it would throw off the numbering scheme. With this book, the looser organization means that I can write new chapters and offer them as updates, and the page numbering has been set up to accommodate this. So I have no plans to offer this book as a completely revised version, but instead will have update 1, update 2, etc. Each update should contain completely new chapters, along with a few revised chapters to replace those needing major changes. However, don't hold me to this scheme, as things can change as I add in new material.

With the freight car book, I wound up significantly expanding each chapter, so I would have had to write separate updates. At the time I had the '94 edition ready, I had no idea so much new material would come to light. Therefore, at this juncture I might be overly optimistic about the minor amount of updating this new book will need.