Remembering the Tonka Box Diorama Kits

Along with the incredible work of Shep Paine (who I would never have imagined would one day become a mentor and a friend), the thing that spurred my interest in the art of the box diorama at the impressionable age of 13 or 14 was a series of model kits issued by Tonka (much better known for its indestructible toy trucks) under the imprimatur of the Smithsonian Institute. In the process of scanning articles to add to this site, I came across a magazine advertisement from 1978 heralding this series, and I’m reproducing it below along with examples of some of the other kits’ box art.

The kits were unique, as far as I know, in giving you everything you needed to create a box diorama with one purchase: a hard-shell plastic box with a translucent window up top to allow light and a clear plastic sheet in front; a styrene model kit and figures (neither of particularly great quality—we’re talking a step below Monogram in the same period, if a slight step above the Marx toy soldiers); a cardboard or plastic backdrop; various plastic pieces of scenery; a scenic base, and, in some cases, mirrored cardboard walls to create the illusion of infinity on the sides of the box.

I think the images below represent all of the entries in the series—two different takes on early automobiles; an early fire engine; two different steam locomotives (including one during the Confederate raid on Chambersburg); the Wright flyer, and Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis—but I’d be curious to hear if anyone remembers any others! And, out of nostalgic curiosity to see if these kits were as I remembered them (I think I did two as a kid), I just bought the fire truck on eBay, and I’ll let you know how it holds up once I dig in!

—Jim DeRogatis