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From the The Antiques Gazette with permission
Vol. 24, No.5
December 2007:
 
Toy Trains- Coming and going Around;  Carol Stewart


"Everything old is new again," and "What goes around comes around:- old sayings that are never more true than when speaking of toy trains. Those mini-locomotives have been coming and going around Christmas trees from the time real trains started running until... now, actually. At last count, the old standbys of the last century were still among the top ten choices for Christmas toys, although no data is available on exactly whose choice they are- kids' or dads'.


Early History
In the beginning, toy trains didn't run around the Christmas tree under their own power. The first toy trains, built in the mid-19th century, were pushed or pulled by hand wand were poor replicas of the real thing. The earliest of these trains were made in Germany out of all kinds of materials, especially lead and tin. Shortly thereafter, self-propelling trains came into play in two forms: steam-powered engines affordable only by the wealthy and clockwork trains for the more modest pocketbook.
None of those early Victorian trains came in systems or sets. They ran on the floor or on track built by the owners. When British and French toymakers joined the Germans, they stuck with top-of-the-line steam engines. In America, tinplate clockwork trains were mass-produced by Brown, Schlesinger, Fallows and Althof Bergmann, but by the 1880's cast-iron engines were more popular here and manufactured by J&E Stevens, Pratt & Letchworth and Francis W. Carpenter. As mass-production took hold, distribution costs of huge quantities of the heavier toys proved expensive, and in the 1890's, tin, with lithographs added, provided a less expensive and more colorful product.
A much more important turning point occurred in 1891, once again in Germany, when Marklin introduced the first sectional track and with it the first gauges. Marklin's clockwork, painted and soldered trains came in three gauges called 1, 2 and 3 (0 was added later), and were packaged as sets. Another Marklin innovation, a marketing bonanza that has carried over with notable success into other toy lines (Barbie is a prime example), was the ever-expanding range. Additional tracks, cars and accessories were made available in a wide range of prices, from Christmas and birthday sizes to those suitable to a child's pocketbook, with new items available every year, just in time for the Christmas shopping season. Bing, Germany's and later the world's largest toy manufacturer, adopted the gauges with the rest of Marklin's idea and exported toy trains around the world.

Electric Trains
In 1884, even before Marklin introduced the ever-expanding clockwork train set, American Murry Bacon patented the first electric toy train, thereby introducing the second important element of modern miniature railroads. Buying Carlisle and Fitch Toy Trains

Carlyle and Finch manufactured an electric train in 1897 and others followed, including Ives, which became the first American leader in toy trains. What's more, Ives trains actually resembled the originals, unlike those of many toymakers who had come before them. Ives example was quickly followed by American Flyer and then by the manufacturer that became synonymous with train sets for years- Lionel.
The first train sets were "Standard Gauge," with cars commonly as large as seven inches high, five inches wide and 16 inches long running on track with rails two inches apart. The were definitely for the wealthy only, not only because they cost as much as a major appliance, but because they took up too much space for a small house. As manufacturing techniques improved and mass production brought down labor costs, the trains got smaller and more affordable, although it was still a major expense for most American families. So it was natural, really, that they be given the most extravagant time of year- Christmas. Once purchased it would go under the tree each year, often long before Christmas, to await those Marklin-inspired additions.
Toy trains remained a major player in the toy market through the 50's, but a decline set in during the 60's as real railways were also losing the lion's share of transportation to the expanding highway system or freight and airplanes for passengers. It was the dads, the baby-boomers who'd swelled the toy market in the 50's and who remembered trains from their childhoods, who kept the industry alive through these hard times.
Toy or model?
It's a poorly kept secret that train sets have always been the fantasy of dads as much, if not more, than they are of sons. And it's the dads especially who've always supported a division of the industry that has come to be known as "model railroading." Knowing who owns the trains may actually be the easiest way to distinguish models from toys. Toy trains for kids can be pull toys, clockworks or battery-powered. The are also less concerned with accuracy than model trains, which are, like other models- boats, airplanes, cars- valued from their detailed resemblance to the originals. Both types of miniature trains- toys and models- are usually operated by electricity today, and the distinction between them sometimes blurs into obscurity when electric toy trains also approach accurate scale.
Model railroads actually pre-date railroads as well as toy trains. The first models were created to sell subscriptions to investors in order to build the first railroads, and some were actually steam-operated. These steam-operated models were only for the wealthy and were usually made in Britain, while the cheaper "toys" were built in Germany. Englishman W.J. Bassett-Lowke was the first manufacturer to gear his product toward adults and move the gauge sizes down.
Between the two wars, the market was in flux. Anti-German sentiment took those manufacturers out of the market, opening it up to new innovations. Toy trains added action and smoke while the down-sizing from Bing's Standard gage down to O 1.25 inches), then to OO and HO (half-O), encouraged modelers who were already inclined toward permanent set-ups with multiple trains, villages and other accessories.
In the 1950's, HO trains by Lionel and American Flyer still dominated the toy market and the larger Garden (Standard) trains were still used under the Christmas tree and by municipalities and other large organizations, but not by the home model railroad buff. In the declining market of the 60's and 70's, new gauges were created, larger (G) gauges for gardens and smaller gauges (N and Z) for the modelers. The popularity for the medium-size train under the tree declined. Families who still liked to have one stored their Lionel or American Flyer with their ornaments to bring out during the holidays.


Lionel is king
Through all the ins and outs and ups and downs, one name became synonymous with toy trains in the minds of the general public- Lionel.
Joshua Lionel Cowen hand-carved his first model locomotive in 1880 at age 7 and fitted it with a tiny steam engine. A novelty shop bought his first electric train- a toy railroad flatcar fitted with an electric fan motor on a 30-foot circular track- for $6, and ordered six more. A year later, in 1900, he set up Lionel Manufacturing Company, and by 1921 he had sold more than a million electric train sets.
The company had down times, but adapted and survived. During the depression, Lionel build a Mickey and Minnie wind-up handcar that sold very well. In better times at the close of the 1930's, the company marketed the Hudson, a steam locomotive for $75, the price of a refrigerator, and put out a catalog of 400 items sold in 4,000 outlets nationwide. When World War II presented another challenge, a lack of metal, Lionel survived by putting out cardboard train kits.
After the war, business boomed. With little or no competition from a devastated Europe, American manufactures owned the market. Lionel's biggest seller, the silver, red and yellow Santa Fe diesel engine, came out in 1948 and by 1955, sales reached $33 million, Lionel was the largest toy company in the world with 2,000 employees and was the only toy company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. That was the peak for Lionel.
As toy trains declined and turned into model railroading, Lionel's share of the market declined as well. Cohen died in 1965 and General Mills bought the rights to the name, added it to their Funjdimensions and as it declined they eventually moved the company to Mexico for a couple of years. Nothing worked for them and they divested of Fundimensions in 1985, with Lionel going to Parker-Kenner.
But the true savior was Richard Kughn, a true toy train enthusiast a collector, who still remembered his first tin train, one he pulled out of the trash at age 7, and his second, a Christmas gift two years later in 1938. Kughn's childhood passion led him to collect Lionel trains as an adult and buy the company in 1986.
Kughn's enthusiasm was shared by others, including rock musician Neil Young, who played around with their electronic controls and sounds and joined Kughn in forming Liontech to provide Lionel with new systems, and when Kughn sold Lionel in 1995, Young was a partner in Wellspring Associates, one of several to make offers for the "lion" of the trade.
Toy trains today
Toy trains may not be the universal boyhood dream they were in the heyday of train travel, but they have hung on through one means or another long after they should logically have been relegated to the dustbin of history, or at least to collectors shelves. Because of the relatively large supply available, old train cars are affordable and considered collectors items rather than antiques. Collectors usually display them on shelves rather than running them, partly because full sets are difficult to find and are sold mainly at auctions, and partly because of the difficulty of repair. As do most collectibles, toy trains have museums, associations and pricing guides, and the new collector would be wise to study them before venturing into the marketplace.
Model railroaders have hung on through the hard times, bur are a much-diminished market. Most have set-ups with multiple train sets and purchase models of the most up-to-date trains running, and trains are still running. Others have bought into the Bachmann trains that were especially designed to fit into Department 56 villages, which arrived in 1971 and got on fairly well without any trains at all, until Bachman provided them a decade later.
Of course, another reason for the persistence of toy trains is their continuing connection to Christmas. Like many other Christmas traditions, though its origins are lost, the train under the tree is a staple passed down from father to son in many families. Large-scare trains designed simply as Christmas decorations are still manufactured by Bachmann, Lionel and others.
Today's generation of kids began felling the pull of toy trains thanks to Thomas the Tank Engine children's shows. Like the original toy trains made back in the 19th century, Thomas the Tank engine trains are brightly painted wood- sturdy and just the right size for small hands. Last year, older children and dads got back into the game and Lionel made a bundle when it came out with the Polar Express train based on the popular 2004 Christmas movie with Tom Hanks. Many a child opened a promissory note instead of a box on Christmas morning and didn't receive their train until February. They are hoping for a repeat with the Hogwarts train just out this year, and Polar Express is still going strong as well. Selling for around $300 in most stores, they are within the budget many families are willing to expend on a "big" Christmas toy.
While modelers may want sleek, up-to-date trains, the popular imagination appears to respond better to the old-fashioned trains. Nostalgia, the force that has propelled the toy train industry past many a slump, propels it today. Something about train travel tugs at the romantic heart in all of us. The bustle of a passenger train station during the holidays has been preserved in decades of celluloid and is still used by today's moviemakers as a sure to evoke times past.
Even those of us who've never traveled by train can feel the call to adventure when a train whistles in the night. Can you hear it?
"Whoo-oo-whoo whoo-oo-whoo...

 

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