A brief history of paper models

By: Philip Koopman, Sr.

Paper models of all types are popular in many countries. Called Paper-Card Modeling in Europe, it spans the range from simple folded-paper darts, to complex three-dimensional mod-els of airplanes, ships and buildings.

During WWII, all materials were in short supply. Those that were available had restricted use. Obviously, toys were at the bottom of the list. These restrictions ruled out metal toys — wood and paper were about all that was available. The U.S. toymakers switched to toys and games that used paper and other nonstrategic materials. Even here, shortages of printing ink lead to some rather bizarre-colored paper models.

One style of paper-model construction used was developed by Wallis Rigby, an Englishman, who had moved his company to the U.S. in the late 1930s. Rigby was internationally know for his paper models of airplanes, boats and trains prior to WWII. These books featured Tab-and-Slot construction. He is generally credited with this method of paper-model construction.

Rigby's realistic models gained much publicity during WWII. The wartime demand for toys had to be met with nonstrategic materials. Paper models filled the void. Rigby's models were published as individual books and boxed sets. And, individual aircraft models, like the Douglas Dauntless, were published in newspapers as part of the colored Sunday Comic Section. This product popularity even led to Newsreel coverage of Rigby, showing the steps used to design, build and fly one of his paper-model airplanes.

Cereal makers, too, felt the material-shortage pinch for premiums. Simplified paper-airplane models, similar to those of Rigby, were used as cereal premiums for General Mills in 1944. Mail in two box tops from Wheaties cereal and you received a pair of paper airplanes. General Mills gave away thousands of these models as part of a nation-wide contest. Backing this was a publicity campaign, showing Veterans in hospitals building the models. A contest held at Nebraska's Boy's Town garnered national Newsreel coverage, too. In all, paper-airplane models gave thousands of kids and adults their first try at model building.

After the end of WWII, material restrictions lifted and toy companies returned to making toys and models of metal, balsa wood and even some of the new plastics. Paper models rapidly disappeared from the U.S. Market. The now-common plastic models replaced the paper airplanes. Only a few publishers continued to print paper models.

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