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90 Years of Craftsman History

Composite illustration by Joseph Chasin and Otto M. Vondrak

90 Years of Craftsman History

March 2023Staff Special/photos as noted

1933 marked the worst year of the Great Depression, with Franklin D. Roosevelt entering his first of four terms as President of the United States. The first drive-in theater opened in New Jersey, the same year the movie “King Kong” debuted. The prohibition of alcohol sales was repealed nationwide, construction of the Golden Gate Bridge began in San Francisco, and the Century of Progress fair opened in Chicago. Meanwhile, the first drumbeats of international conflict in Europe steadily grew.

With unemployment at an all-time high and an average of one in four people seeking work, it seemed like a terrible time to launch a new magazine dedicated to leisure and hobbies. But that didn’t stop Emanuele Stieri from putting out the first issue of The Model Craftsman from his shared office in New York City. “This magazine is largely dedicated to this vast army of American Craftsmen,” Stieri said in his first editorial, “… It is with the hope and confidence in the American Craftsman that we may be the means of promoting craftsmanship in the home workshop that we are presenting this new publication.”

Railroad Model Craftsman

ABOVE: In 1940, the publishing company relocated from New York City to this house off busy Route 17 in suburban Ramsey, N.J.

The concept of model railroading as a hobby for adults was in its infancy in the 1930s. Lionel electric trains had already won valuable space in the home on the living room carpet, and a few hearty souls had constructed permanent set-ups either in the attic or the basement. But the beefy Standard Gauge trains of the day took up lots of room. German toymakers had introduced clockwork-powered trains half the size of Lionel in the 1920s, but the first electric HO scale model trains didn’t make their debut in America until 1935. Coincidentally, this was the same year the National Model Railroad Association was founded. In those early days, there were no kits to order or parts to find (other than crude trucks and couplers). If you wanted something that wasn’t offered by the manufacturers, you simply sat down and built it yourself.

While early issues of The Model Craftsman covered a broad range of hobby topics, including model boats and airplanes, as well as home woodworking projects, model railroading was included from the start. Edwin P. Alexander was listed on the masthead as part of the “Editorial Advisory Board” related to model railroads, a relationship that continued with the magazine through the 1950s. A pioneering O scale custom builder and manufacturer, Edwin founded American Model Railroad Co. in 1927. A prolific author, “Building and Equipping Model Railroads” was his first article, featuring photos from his Penn Eastern System which featured outside third-rail. His article discussed the basics of planning and building a model railroad. Other early authors included Fred Icken (another early O scale model builder and manufacturer) and William K. Walthers, who founded his own model railroad manufacturing and wholesale distributor business that is carried on by the fourth generation of his family to this day. Other early authors included Bill Schopp, who first published in 1937 and went on to author more than 1,000 feature articles (sometimes under pseudonyms John Kemp, Bill Willmore, and “The Layout Doctor”). Contributor Harold V. Loose joined the staff and rose through the ranks to become editor in 1938, only to have passed away from illness in 1940.

ABOVE: The magazine changed its name to Model Railroad Craftsman starting with the April 1949 issue. At the request of Al Kalmbach, the name was again changed in July 1949 to Railroad Model Craftsman, and has stuck ever since.

The magazine’s focus narrowed specifically to model building under the leadership of Charles A. Penn, who joined as advertising manager in November 1933, and became vice president and publisher by 1935. Penn was named president of Model Craftsman Publishing Corp. in April 1935, and managing editor Edwin T. Hamilton replaced Stieri. Penn named himself editor beginning with the May 1935 issue. Penn’s wife Helen also joined the company around the same time, serving various roles, and helping guide the growth of the magazine.

Penn relocated the company across the Hudson River to suburban Ramsey, N.J., in 1940, occupying a small house alongside busy Route 17. Around this same time, American Flyer was producing its first S scale trains (though the term “S scale” wouldn’t be adopted by the NMRA until 1943). In December 1940, the magazine absorbed The Modelmaker, a publication launched in 1924 by British publishers Spon & Chamberlain as one of the first catering to modelbuilders. The magazine was briefly published by Kalmbach before it was sold to Penn.

Railroad Model Craftsman

ABOVE: From left to right, Managing Editor Jim Thompson, photographer Sam Skean, Associate Editor Bill Schopp, Editor and Publisher Charles Penn, and Associate Editor Hal Carstens.

Publisher Charles Penn was another pioneer of the hobby, cutting his teeth in publishing and helping transform the retail industry. Several titles in addition to Model Craftsman were published under the Penn Publications banner, including the tabloid format Railroad & Model News in 1936 and the digest-sized Miniature Railroading in 1937. Both were short-lived and folded within a year. Penn was a founder of the early Model Railroad Manufacturers Association and the later Model Industry Association, now part of the Hobby Manufacturers Association.

America’s entry into World War II in 1941 brought restrictions on strategic materials, while many model manufacturers were pressed into defense production. Despite the hardships, the Model Craftsman pressed on, encouraging readers to build models with whatever materials could be scrounged. Many models built from cardboard, cigar boxes, and banana crates emerged during this time.

Railroad Model Craftsman

ABOVE: This former New Jersey Bell Telephone building became the new home of RMC in 1957. The magazine moved to the venerable Ramsey Journal Building in 1963, but returned to here in 1968 before relocating to Newton in 1973. —Google

While Mantua had introduced 6-volt DC motors for HO scale trains as early as 1936, it wasn’t until after the war when Pittman’s smooth-running 12-volt motors became the new standard (with Varney and Mantua following), making the smaller trains more affordable to produce. As HO scale grew in popularity, the magazine found itself secure enough in its niche to adopt an all-model railroad stance in April 1948. This was the same year that our publication debuted the work of John Allen, “the Wizard of Monterey,” and his incredibly realistic HO scale Gorre & Daphetid (“Gory and Defeated”) Railroad. The magazine also changed its name to Model Railroad Craftsman in April 1949. After a gentle request from Model Railroader publisher Al Kalmbach, the name was modified to Railroad Model Craftsman starting with the July 1949 issue. Other titles incorporated into RMC included Electric Trains and The O Gauger (published by General Models Corp.).

The hobby saw many advances in the 1950s as new manufacturers entered the field. Kadee introduced a realistic operating knuckle coupler in 1952, while Atlas Tool Co. introduced “Flex-Track” in 1955. The NMRA released a new standard for the “X2f” plastic coupler (also known as the “horn-hook”), which was quickly adopted by manufacturers.

In 1952, frequent contributor Hal Carstens joined the staff — recruited by editor Jim Thompson — the same year Penn launched Toy Trains magazine, aimed at the vintage collector and operator. A New Jersey native, Hal studied journalism and art at the Philippine Institute for the Armed Forces in Manila, and earned his degree in business management from Fairleigh Dickinson College. He was appointed managing editor of RMC and Toy Trains in 1954, becoming editor and vice president in 1957. That same year, RMC relocated to the first floor of a former Bell Telephone office building at 31 Arch Street in Ramsey…

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This article was posted on: February 16, 2023