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When Plastic Was A Miracle:
Plasticville -- Beton -- Renwal

July 1, 2016

Before he became a filmmaker, Frank Capra wanted to be a chemical engineer. He knew about plastic which is why plastic is mentioned in Capra's film It's A Wonderful Life. Plastics are another opportunity that George Bailey passes on while his friend Sam Wainwright makes a fortune in plastic gun turret bubbles for WWII bombers. Viewers of It's A Wonderful Life in 1947 appreciated what Geoge Bailey missed out on. Plastic had become a miracle material used in making all kinds of things, including toys. By the 1950s, hundreds of toy companies were molding plastic products. This essay is about three that I'm familar with.

Plasticville Supermarket

The Beton lady and her Renwal sedan at the Plasticville Supermarket. The great thing about these toys is that they embody the design and style of the 1940s and '50s.

Plasticville

Believe it or not, plastic was invented because of the simple hair comb. Hair combs were once made of tortoiseshell. Plastics were developed as a cheap and plentiful substitute for turtle armor. That is why some early plastic is mottled like tortoiseshell.

Established in 1833, Bachmann Brothers of Philadelphia was a maker of hair combs, so naturally the company adopted plastic as a material when it was invented.

Around 1950, when toy trains were at the height of their popularity, there were numerous companies that did not make trains but which made accessories for trains. Bachmann joined these by producing a plastic white picket fence that could be snapped together. The fence was a runaway seller at Christmas. Bright green plastic pine trees were added to the line, then a snap-together Cape Cod house. Plasticville was under development.

Woolworth Plasticville Ad

Plasticville's availability through popular "dimestores" such as Woolworth's in the 1950s ensured its wide distribution and current commonness as a collectible. Most items in this ad were 98 cents. The hospital was a whopping $1.98. Even today, vintage Plasticville, including items with no missing parts and in the original boxes, is plentiful and not very expensive.

Plasticville Town Hall

Plasticville's largest structure was the town hall. That it looks like Independence Hall is no surprise considering that the maker of Plasticville was located in Philadelphia. Plasticville's Chinese landlords currently offer the town hall in built-up form with red-brick walls.

Beton plastic deteriorate

Not all the surplus plastic that Beton used was stable. The arrow indicating the green porter on my parents' layout that is now shrinking and shriveling, shown in the inset next to a "healthy" porter made from the same batch. In the foregrounnd is the Plasticville chrome-plated diner, a scarcer but still not very valuable, variation. At the rear is the gray police station, no doubt obtained because my father was a U.S. Capitol Policeman while he was going to law school.

Is it Plasticville or Lionelville? 30-second video of Plasticville buildings from the 1950s on an 0-gauge layout. Left to right are: chrome-plated diner, bank, supermarket, 5&10, post office (behind the Lionel 1926 station) and manufacturing co.

Lionel Train Layout 1955

The Beton mottled plastic engineer emerges from the cardboard village on my parents' 1955 Christmas layout in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I still have both trains and the switchtower in the foreground.

Beton

Although it was called Bergen Toy & Novelty, "Beton" was actually located in Carlstadt, New Jersey. A pioneer in plastic toymaking, Beton began turning out plastic toy soldiers just in time for World War II.

The great thing about these toys is that they embody the design and style of the 1940s and '50s.

After the war the line was expanded to include cowboys, indians, circus figures, civilians and animals. The funny thing about Beton was that they used a wild variety of color plastics, probably whatever they could get on the cheap, surplus stock or leftovers from other factories. In a slight -- very slight -- nod to realism, Beton sometimes mitigated the outlandish colors by painting faces in flesh tones and highlighting other features.

Beton figures

Invasion of The Martian Train People. I suspect that these guys have a third eye under their hats. Beton could paint the clothes but not the faces?

Beton engineers and porters

Engineers on top, porters on the bottom, show the variety of plastic colors and minimal airbrush jobs Beton figures got. Earlier figures have the green snapped-on oval base. This tended to warp and about 1954, Beton started molding the bases as part of the figures. The engineer in the middle is the one seen on the 1955 layout above.

Renwal

Baby Boomers may not not recognize the Renwal name, but they probably remember the Visible Man, Visible Woman (with an optional package, "The Miracle of Creation," that contained the gestational pieces) and the Visible Dog from Science class. The really valuable one -- and more fun than the Visible Woman -- is the Visible V-8, the parts of which could be moved by an electric motor. Aside from these familiar teaching aids, Renwal produced an astounding variety of plastic toys, including dollhouse miniatures that capture the home-furnishing styles of the 1940s.

Renwal Convertible

Renwal vehicles had a lot of play-value. The top on this convertible pivots down under the car seat. It also has an opening trunk and a spare tire.

Renwal Doll Furniture

Chippendale dining chair and 1940s cabinet radio, rear shown, are two of the bewildering array of dollhouse miniatures that were made by Renwal.