History of Paper Modeling

I remember spending hours as kid putting together papers models from books. There was an American 4-4-0 locomotive and matching rolling stock, the main street of a small town, farm scene and even a diorama of a cityscape and harbor. You had to carefully punch each piece out of the book (without ripping the little tabs, of course) and the painstakingly create creases in all the right places. Once you had your creases done you could start inserting tabs to shape each model.

These books were a modern twist on a hobby that had actually been around for decades. Paper modeling itself has been around almost since the invention of paper in forms such as origami and kirigami. These forms were mainly used to create animals until the 1930’s, when wartime production had manufacturers looking for alternatives to metal.

Some of the most famous models were created by Wallis Rigby, who applied paper modeling to the creation of boats, planes and trains. Rigby’s creations exploded in popularity during World War II and were published in a variety of books and periodicals. Rigby’s creations also provided inspiration for cereal companies like Kellogg’s and General Mills.

Also feeling the metal pinch, these manufactures had to come up with paper alternatives for product premiums. In some cases you would send in box tops to get the model. More clever promotions included models printed directly on the back of the box. In most cases you had to collect several boxes to get the full model or scene.

Once the war ended, though, most major manufacturers returned to metal and wood for production. Not long after, plastics revolutionized the toy industry because they were inexpensive and easier to mold. No one gave much of a look back at paper or cardstock.

Over the years a few companies continued to make paper or cardstock models but the market was limited. It was largely a cottage industry producing model books like the ones I worked on as a kid. This would remain the case for the rest of the twentieth century.

Starting in the early 2000’s, three factors were set the stage for paper and card modeling to become popular again. These include inexpensive ink jet printers, greater availability of thicker paper and resources on the Internet. 

Ink jet printers allowed hobbyists to print fairly good-looking models at home and thicker paper allowed for sturdier and more elaborate models. Once people saw the potential, the Internet provided a forum for people to post patterns and models that other people could download and print at home.

The general craft of paper modeling has become fairly complex fairly quickly, including scale model planes, buildings, ships and even figures. These models can involve literally hundreds of pages to create the completed model. The inset on the next page has links to some of the more interesting ones. (These sites are a great place to draw inspiration.)

Look through these sites and you’ll find structures that could be on a model railroad here and there. Paper modeling in model railroading has gained most of its popularity in just the last few years. During that time, though several sites have sprung up dedicated to model railroad structures. (A list of these sites is provided in the next chapter under sources of paper models.

Prior to the last few years, paper modeling in model railroading has been relegated to two main uses: flat backgrounds and paper-mache’ applications such as mountains and tunnels. In the early days of toy trains, some manufacturers like Lionel, Marx and American Flyer even sold pre-made paper construction tunnels. The marketplace has also seen a rolled product called “mountain paper.”

Today model railroads can choose from a variety of products and patterns to create paper-based structures and the introduction of home-based die cutting machines allows for even greater details and more depth in three dimensional paper or cardstock structures.