TV Is The Thing This Year*

 photo TV-Antenna-01_zps2rdgydlp.jpg
(The farmhouse at St. Williams has all modern conveniences for 1953, including a television. Somebody is doing well on sales of tobacco, it seems!)

Little details often go a long way to setting the year on a layout – especially for those who are not in the hobby or not familiar with the railway being modelled.

For example, I know that 2-6-0s ran on the branch to Port Rowan until sometime in the mid-1950s, when a bridge at Caledonia was rebuilt to allow larger power to cross. By 1957, Port Rowan trains were hauled by CNR 10-wheelers. Somebody who is only generally familiar with railroading may see steam locomotives and be able to guess that the layout is set before 1960 – but they would need more clues before they could even pin down the decade.

Vehicles help. Even if one can’t tell a 1953 Ford from a 1955 Chevy, there are certain signature styles that say “1950s” versus earlier or later decades: Nobody will mistake that 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria for a 1935 Ford Phaeton.

But little details also help tell the story. Like a TV antenna.

As the lead photo shows, I’ve used an HO scale photo-etched antenna from Gold Medal Models. I glued this to a length of phosphor bronze wire (not included) and added a block at the bottom from 0.040″ square styrene strip. I painted the block and wire black and then glued the antenna assembly to the side of the chimney. I added a loop of black E-Z Line around the chimney to represent a strap of metal, securing the antenna to the brick work.

The signal has to get from the antenna to the TV, so I used more black E-Z Line to add a cable. I threaded an eyebolt onto the line, and glued this into a hole drilled on the wall below the eavestrough, as shown below. Next, I drilled a hole in the siding next to the parlour window and glued one end of the cable into this. I then pulled the line tight – but not too tight – and glued the other end of the cable to the bottom of the antenna mast.

 photo TV-Antenna-02_zpsniismoeq.jpg

For most North Americans, a roof-top antenna defines a period from the launch of broadcast TV in the mid-1940s to the widespread adoption of cable TV services in the 1980s.

TV came to Canada a little later than in the United States. Canadians living along the border had been picking up American signals since 1946, and thousands of TV sets were watching ABC, NBC or CBS from border cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Seattle.

The first Canadian stations – CBC Montreal and CBC Toronto – signed on in September 1952. That year, it’s estimated that some 85,000 sets were sold, 95% of them in Ontario. Most of these – 57.4% – were sold in the Toronto, Hamilton and Niagara Regions as people took advantage of clear signals beamed across Lake Ontario.

St. Williams and Port Rowan are a fair distance from Toronto so picking up CBC would’ve been impossible until further affiliates were launched. But they are right along the shore of Lake Erie – and from a broadcast signal perspective they’re in clear view of Buffalo. Could they have received television signals from there? Would they have bothered?

WBEN-TV signed on the air in 1948 and WGR-TV joined it in 1954, so signal or two existed. But televisions were expensive and the signal quality would’ve been dicey. That said, TVs were also a status symbol. It seems that my tobacco farmer in St. Williams is keen to impress the neighbours with a television in the parlour. Or maybe he just loves The Howdy Doody Show?

Regardless of reason, the antenna adds a nice bit of rooftop clutter that helps define the era.

*Dinah Washington’s recording of “TV Is The Thing This Year” was released in 1953 – one of the years I use for operating sessions on my layout:

FYI, Diane Reeves did a great version of it on the soundtrack for “Good Night and Good Luck”:

17 thoughts on “TV Is The Thing This Year*

  1. Happy viewing in St. Williams. Grand idea, but I don’t think it will work for Colorado Springs in 1895. Too bad…

  2. Thanks a lot Trevor, something ELSE I now need to research, did Raymond, Wash have TV signals in 1953?

    Seriously, it’s good to know whether or not they did. I’d hate to have antennas on my houses only to find out that they couldn’t have received anything.

    Thanks for another interesting post.

    • Hi Brian:
      If there are TV stations in the area today, try checking for a history page on their websites – or google “CALL History” where CALL is the three or four letter call sign (eg: WIVB). TV licences are pretty stable – the infrastructure is significant and with exclusive rights to their spectrum, they were good money-makers for the owners. So a station in a given community that’s around today would’ve been in continuous operation since it was set up. It’s not as if they move from city to city.

      • Thanks for the suggestion Trevor. I will do that. I would imagine the stations would have been located in Olympia, Tacoma, Seattle or Portland (Oregon, not Maine! ), or some combination thereof.

  3. My parents got their first TV set in the early 50s though in Los Angeles. We tried a couple of different brands of TV to our home to try out to see which brand would work best. My father settled for a Hoffman with radio and phonograph. The screen was quite small perhaps no more that 12 inches and greenish. As they only had tubes back the it took a few minutes to warm up.

    The shows were mostly only in the evening, so at first day time was just your TV test pattern. Getting your antenna pointed in the right direction for best reception was a three person job. One on the roof to turn the antenna, one person in front of the TV to monitor the reception, and one person running back and forth with the information on how things were going. This could take awhile.

    Having put up an antenna meant to be prepared for a lot of visitors from neighborhood, people that you never met before, with the new TV owner playing TV expert. This must have been similar to early car owners in the beginning of the 20th century.

    If you were lucky you might have two or three TV stations. Shows were mostly a hour long and named after the sponsoring company. So the sponsor was mentioned in the introduction to the show and would have one minute of commercial at the half hour point, and might be briefly mentioned in the closing of the show.

    As TV stations began to move into day time operation, there was a real shortage of shows, so much of the time were filled in by movies, very old movies. I can remember silent scree comedies like Our Gang Comedy early Laurel and Hardy and working our way into the early talking picture of the late twenties into the thirties, and of course a lot of late thirties and war years movies.

    Another thing, all the programs were live, so any mistakes you saw live. This continued into the sixties when on The Ed Sullivan Show, a comedian had his jokes fall flat and get no laughs from the live audience. So pointing to each part of the audience he used the F word several times. He was banned fro TV until he came back to the show and apologized.

  4. Hi Trevor,
    At home in Forrestville, we were able to receive Buffalo channels in the 1950’s but our best channels were from Erie, PA only 28 miles South. My Dad bought a 19″ Philco in October ,1955. and I was hooked on American Television at 5 years of age.
    NBC came on Channel 12 in 1956,our strongest signal. Along with ABC and CBS (Buffalo) we received the Dumont Network which was absorbed by ABC in 1956 too. Our CBC was London Channel 10, Kitchener on Channel 13 and Channel 11 in Hamilton. Weather conditions and the position of the aerial dictated the clarity of the picture.
    So when you model St.Williams, turn those aerials south!

    • Thanks Monte – I was kind of hoping you would fill in the picture(tube) a bit. I wondered about Erie PA – glad to know they were on the air in the 1950s. I’m glad I added the aerial!

    • Early TV operated in the VHF band. The direct path horizon is approximately 30 miles. VHF signals would duct in the lower atmosphere so you could pick up signals farther away.
      I used to listen to a traditional Hawaiian AM station in Honolulu while I was in Maui. The signal would duct over 100 miles.


  5. I guess those of us that can remember our first experiences watching TV just proves one thing, we’re getting old! Broadcast TV came late to central Maine and the Atlantic Provinces, too. I can remember going into town to pick up our first RCA b&w television – it weighed a ton or two. And yes, people really did sit around and watch “test patterns” waiting for the first broadcast to begin. Nostalgia, it’s why I model the late ’40s and early ’50s and enjoy your blog immensely – despite my modeling in N scale.

  6. Portland Oregon — early fall 1952 or so my grandfather was in a hospital type bed in our dining room for an extended period recovering from a rollover accident so we rented a TV for 6 months. As I recall there was one local channel and one or two from Seattle that you could get some times. Local bars had tall towers for their TV antennae.

    We moved in 1953 and our new next door neighbor was a TV repairman so kids all went to their house for Disney then we got a floor model for our living room. Victory at Sea, You Asked For It and a show about the Army and its latest weapons like Honest John rockets, Long Tom cannon and atomic testing were memorable.

    My father did a couple of Saturday shows about science in the class room as he was head of math and science for Portland Public schools.

    Yes, some of us are getting old!

    • Sorry for the delay in responding Bill, but I wanted to thank you for the information on Portland TV circa 1952-3. Great info to know.

  7. Once again, as with your tree house – spot on!

    Two things Gene said, that you have a Yagi antenna and early TV transmitted on the VHF band, got me thinking. Is this antenna actually the right shape for your layout year?

    The length of the elements of a Yagi antenna depends on the wavelength of the signal you want to pick up. For the VHF band this means that the elements should typically be in the meter (3 ft) range. And for UHF they should be in the 1/4 meter (1 ft) range. Also, VHF antennas tended to have same size elements throughout, while UHF antennas often used elements of varying size, like yours. Ask me, I am old enough to have been up on the roof to adjust both types for a better signal 🙂

    So perhaps your tobacco farmer needs make a second trip to the TV dealer and backdate his antenna. To something like this

    No offense, I like your antenna a lot! But I thought you would like to know.

    P.S. What I have said was at least true in Sweden where I live and grew up. If this did not apply on the North American continent, disregard my ramblings.

  8. It’s been a long time since I’ve thought about TV antennas. If I recall correctly (and I often do not), a “multi-channel” antenna had elements of various lengths, each cut to a length that matched a particular frequency. In a large antenna, many (most) of the elements aren’t receiving elements at all, but rather reflectors and directors. In essence, they helped strengthen the signal on the active elements.

    An antenna as linked to in the previous post wouldn’t really be good for all 12 of the VHF channels unless the stations were quite close.

  9. Just a quick note to say thanks to everybody for the feedback on this. As always, a very interesting discussion that adds lots of context to what I’m modelling – and some good suggestions to improve the installation.

    (In addition, thanks to one reader who wrote privately to suggest that I add a small box where the cable enters the parlour, plus a grounding rod to take care of lightning strikes: Great ideas, and I’ll do them next time I’m working on this structure and scene.)


  10. What a neat thread that’s developed from this post. It’s neat to read about the spread of TV through different regions.

    I particularly enjoyed Lennart Svedberg’s comment. I would have never known any of that and it’s fascinating stuff.



Leave a Reply to Jack Shall Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Please prove you're not a nasty spamming robot thingy * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.