model train set on track

For Want of a Box

e*Train Issue: Oct 2018   |   Posted in: ,

American Flyer set box 4914A from 1949.
Box was originally opened from the bottom as seen in the photo.

Chip Kessler # 93-38197  Fall 2018 

Funny how a piece of cardboard can have such an effect on certain model train collectors and enthusiasts.  I include myself in this group!  My passion is American Flyer sets from the 1940s and 50s, and yes if at all possible I want to have the box as part of what I’m buying.  I do have a few sets minus the set box (and individual car boxes if they were part of the package) but only a few like this.  What’s more I’m on the lookout for what I’m missing.

I’ll let the TCA members who are licensed psychiatrists determine why the box means so much to those of us that want them.  Indeed I know of many train collectors who don’t care if the box comes with the train, or the individual engine or piece.  Perhaps they are the smart ones since, as we all know, a box (or boxes) included in the transaction makes the price go up.  Fact is, in some cases the particular box might be worth as much as the entire set!  You’ll even see, from time-to-time on E-bay, that there are just the original train set boxes offered.  Depending on the box in question, the price paid can be quite high.

Contents from set box 4914A, including box for the engine, the mail pick up car, and the three red New Haven passenger cars.

Speaking for myself, boxes just seem to make the sets complete, so if I’m missing the set box, then it makes me feel as if I’ve not gotten everything that was part of the original package.  Again the psychiatrists can take if from here regarding this last statement.

American Flyer New York Central Hudson #322AC, which came as part of the 4914A set.

Here’s another thought regarding the quest for these boxes, and it’s a sobering one at that.   Those of us who want boxes are at the mercy, in many cases, of the six or eight or ten or twelve year old boy (or perhaps girl) back sixty or seventy years ago.  These folks first received an American Flyer, Lionel, or Marx train set, more than likely as a Christmas or birthday gift.  Was the child so excited once he or she ripped off the wrapping paper that the next thing torn through was the box?   After all, back then boxes weren’t held in such high esteem. 

Obstacle number two is the fact that boxes took up room.  Because of this, while the box may have survived a child’s fever pitch to get at the train, said box may have sooner (or later) been tossed out via a mother or father bent on saving space or feeling as with the wrapping paper, the box was just trash.  Yikes!

It reminds me of the time we moved when I was sixteen.  While my mother had many redeeming qualities, housekeeping wasn’t at the top of the list, so my piles of 1960s baseball cards and comic books were safe — until the move!  It gave her a reason to “clean house” so-to-speak, so any Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle cards lying around, not to mention vintage Batman or Superman comics were toast. Because I didn’t have trains in my youth, any related boxes I might have saved back then didn’t experience the same fate as my baseball cards and comic books.  Oh well.

American Flyer set box from the #20530 Night Hawk Set (side view)
Set box #20530 (top view)

A friend of mine, fellow TCA member Clay Kinsner (TCA member 93-37753) buys and sells American Flyer and Lionel trains at “Lone Star Trains and Collectibles.”  He tells me of a gentleman of his acquaintance who just has the boxes left from his collection.  Apparently this man didn’t want to rid himself of everything- trains yes, boxes no!  Clay has had some preliminary discussions about acquiring the boxes, but so far no luck.  Keep after him Clay, because I for one am interested in what might be out there box-wise!

It’s funny how things evolve over time.  What was once not given a second thought by some is today front and center in the minds of certain collectors.  I can remember back in the 1960’s when local pharmacies that sold comic books would cut the top half off the covers and sell the books at reduced prices, once the new issues appeared each month.  As well, if you had a mail subscription to a comic back then, the publisher folded the book in half so as to fit it into a brown paper wrapping sleeve.  Those after such books in today’s market certainly wouldn’t pay a premium price for a creased comic, and potentially wouldn’t even go near a book with half the cover sliced off.

It’s not quite as bad, from what I observe, in today’s train collecting market.  Sure, many of the set boxes aren’t in the best of shape, victims of time and perhaps less than ideal storage conditions (i.e. heat and humidity).  Plus, as in the case of American Flyer S Gauge set boxes from 1946-1957, the label may be faded and/or the set number gone, or the label maybe partially torn off the box.  Fortunately beginning in 1958 Flyer redesigned their boxes and the set number was done in heavy ink.

American Flyer New York Central Hudson #21130 which provided the pulling power for this group of cars which included the flat car with the Christmas trees.

I wonder what the numbers are amongst collectors: those who want the boxes versus those who don’t really care one way or the other.  After all, as you realize, it’s not the box that goes charging down the track, just what’s inside the box.  Accordingly, I’d be curious as to how many out there buy a newer set or engine today, fresh in the box, and still dispose of the box?  Knowing what we know now, I’m thinking most keep the boxes.

Yes, we’ll still buy a postwar piece or a set minus the box if we want the item badly enough.  From the look at what’s out there, there’s a lot of boxes missing in action.  This is too bad because there’s real value to the seller and many buyers in that cardboard!