Libby’s Is More Than Canned Food*
by Paul Wassermann
In 1973, prompted by my finding the Libby pineapple and tomato juice cars, the late Dr. Don Fraley and I co-authored an article for the Lionel Collectors Club of America concerning the 1963 Libby Lionel set. However, neither of us owned the other components of this interesting uncatalogued special. My recent acquisition of a mint, boxed set at the February Nor-Cal meet in Santa Clara rekindled my interest in this intriguing promotional outfit. I thought the TCA members would find the results of my latest research of great interest in light of the super surprise ending.
The set was offered for sale in the fall of 1963. I have a copy of an advertisement from Sunset magazine, October, 1963, indicating that for the price of $10.95 and 4 labels from Libby products, you would receive “… a lot of train…and it’s a real LIONEL!” The set consisted of 6 pieces: complimenting the ubiquitous #1062 steam loco, #6076 ATSF hopper, and yellow #6167 rubber stamped Union Pacific caboose, were three unusual items – a #1062T tender with a bold Southern Pacific graphic, a #6050 Libby’s Tomato Juice boxcar, and a #6475 Libby Pineapple car. Ten pieces of 027 track and a 1010 transformer completed the outfit. Also included were the 1963 consumer and accessory catalogs. The whole works came in a Lionel set box stamped No. 19263.
In reflecting on this set, I thought it would be of interest to see if I could find some of the original advertising for the promotion. The thought of looking for fall issues of 1963 magazines occurred to me, but just on an impulse, during a lull in my Monday afternoon office hours, I called my wife Irene and asked if she had any Libby products in the house. A can of Vienna sausages revealed the corporate headquarters in Glendale, California. A couple of minutes later, the information operator had provided me with a Libby’s telephone number.
The company’s switchboard operator and I finally determined that perhaps their Public Relations Department could help me. A few minutes later I was transferred to the Marketing Department. The conversation that ensued had to be one of the most remarkable experiences that I have had as a train collector!
I was put in touch with a Mr. Olof Prila, who had been in charge of the entire Lionel set promotion 39 years ago! He informed me that he and his wife had come up with the idea of putting together an expensive promotion in time for Christmas 1963, and felt that the Lionel name would induce a strong enough response to warrant the expense involved. As he recalled, the project was not very successful, perhaps because the promotional budget had been too lean and the set was not heavily advertised. He recalled it was only advertised in Sunset and also remembered some heated corporate discussions about having a tank car painted like a Vienna sausage. A prototype was apparently actually made, but dropped in favor of the pineapple car! Then he really made my day! “I believe I still have the original contracts, advertising mats, and correspondence with Lionel. Would you be interested in them?” You can guess what my response was. He promised to get back to me after he had a chance to check his files.
An hour or so later my office nurse informed me that “some man about a tomato juice train” was on the line. Mr. Prila seemed to be excited himself as he told me that he had found all of the information he had promised and then he dropped the bombshell: “Our inventory list indicates that out of the 10,000 units produced, we sold 5169, gave away 697 to employees or local charities, leaving 4102 undistributed units in warehouse storage! Our records indicated that we shipped 14 units in February, 1964; 17 in March; and 1 in April (The offer expired December 31, 1963). After that the unsold sets have just been held in inventory.”
You can well imagine that I was in total and complete shock. The thought of over 4000 mint, sealed Lionel Libby sets piled up next to pallets of fruit cocktail and canned peas was overwhelming. “Would Libby be willing to dispose of some of the sets?” I asked as casually as possible. Mr. Prila felt that contractual agreements required that the sets be sold as advertised in 1963 (Yikes, I might have to find 16,408 Libby’s labels in addition to $44,916.90 to buy them all), but when I mentioned that the Desert Division of the TCA is part of a non-profit organization, he suggested that the sets could probably be donated to us if we could cover the shipping expenses!!!
Then Olof (our conversation was longer than this dialog implies, and by now I was on a first-name basis with Mr. Prila.) dropped one more bomb! He told me that a “sample set” was knocking around the corporate offices somewhere. This initial offering had not met with the approval of management because the Pineapple Car was an unattractive orange and the black hopper was felt to be too stark. Taken together, it looked like a Halloween set, so Lionel agreed to change to the blue and gray cars finally supplied with the set. A light bulb went on when I remembered that the Libby advertisement actually showed the prototype set with an orange pineapple car and a black hopper. A special production prototype would certainly be a welcome addition to any postwar collection. I assured Olof that the extra set would certainly be nice to have as well.
So as things now stand, I’m looking for approximately 4000 cubic feet of storage space. If you can help in this regard, let me know. Shipping expenses for the lot could be deferred if some volunteers would be willing to drive a truck over to Glendale and bring the sets back. Let me know if you can help with storage and/or transportation. I thought we could dispose of some of the sets by selling them for $10.95 to each TCA member (Desert Division members first, of course). In addition we could require 4 cans of Libby’s products for each set and use this to stockpile our picnic inventory.
Wow, what an exhilarating experience that was. The effort involved in researching toy train history is its own reward, but, in this case, the outcome was far beyond my wildest dreams. I want to express my sincere thanks to Libby’s and Olof Prila for their assistance and generosity in this matter.
(* The above article was reprinted from the TCA Desert Division’s Newsletter, The Dispatch. It has been a tradition for the Desert Divison to celebrate April Fools Day (Olof Prila) with a witty article to get the collector’s juices flowing. All in good fun, of course. )