Bulletin Staff Report
Toy trains have been a traditional Christmas present for children for generations, and a new exhibit of model trains has opened at the Martin and Frances Lehnis Railroad Museum.
“The history of model trains turned out to be pretty interesting,” museum curator Mary Irving said. “There have been models and toys of trains since the advent of trains themselves. Victorian toy trains included tin and cast iron trains, some which ran on steam, but most were pushed or pulled.”
In 1891, the German company Marklin introduced the first complete system of trains. Instead of just engines, Marklin created a series of standard track gauges, ready-to-use track sections for those gauges and a range of locomotives, rolling stock and accessories to match.
“For the first time you could keep adding and building until the layout was complete, which it never was,” Irving said.
The second point of the Marklin trains was that it was the first example of the “expanding range” with items at various price points, targeted for Christmas, birthdays, parents and relatives.
The three gauges were 1, 2 and 3. They then added a smaller 0 gauge.
The original propulsion means was clockwork (windup). Other German companies began building model trains, and they all started marketing to Britain, France and the United States.
“At the start of the Edwardian period, the U.K. started building active amateur model railways, which greatly expanded the model train market,” Irving said. “This also caused model trains to be offered to more adult enthusiasts, rather than just to children. W. J. Bassett-Lowke and Henry Greenly, who invented the current “gauge” system, began producing just such trains.”
In the U.S., electric trains were being introduced at the same time. Ives, an established U.S. toy maker, began building clockwork tinplate trains in O and 1. From that beginning, Lionel adopted European-style tinplate tracks and constructional approaches with electric trains.
During World War I Germany was largely unable to export toy trains, so local markets thrived, Irving said. U.S. Lionel, Ives and American Flyer battled over the American enthusiasts.
In the U.S. during the 1930s, model railways became a serious hobby for adult enthusiasts. What emerged were better standards, modelers’ magazines and small manufacturers who built primarily for the adults.
“By World War II, toy makers were selling to parents to provide the toy train to go under the tree or gift wrapped for birthdays.,” Irving said. “Different scales were invented to give greater realism through accurate to scale measurements. In addition, smoke and whistles were added to the experience.”
Toy trains were a major toy during the 1950s. They were produced in the thousands and tens of thousands.
“But throughout the world real railways were losing to the car and plane, and they did so in children’s toys too.