"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'.
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.
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.
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-
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
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
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
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