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Chugging Along
by Bob Brooke

 


The sparks flew as they rattled and clanged over the tracks and along the metal rails. Sometimes it seemed as though they made as much noise as the real trains. but then, that’s what toy trains were supposed to do.



As the 1930s dawned, the Great Depression forced millions of people out of work. Owning an electric toy train was the ultimate. Kids even loved observing the trains displayed in department store windows. What could be more rewarding to a young boy than to receive a model train for Christmas? But these little trains were expensive so were out of reach of many families.

The Earliest Toy Trains
Manufacturers lovingly handcrafted the earliest toy trains, those made prior to 1850, of
shining brass to run on the bare floor. But by the late 1830's, a number of prosperous toy companies began producing toy trains. Around 1856, George W. Brown, a Connecticut firm, produced the first self-propelled train made of iron and coated with tin to prevent rust. A wind up clockwork motor drove the engine and carriages on plush Victorian carpets on straight or curved tracks.

Around 1856, the Connecticut firm of George W. Brown produced the first self-propelled train made of iron coated with tin to prevent rust. It had a wind up clockwork motor that drove the engine and carriages on plush Victorian carpets on straight or curved tracks.

By the 1870's, the most popular trains were powered by steam. Utilizing alcohol or sometimes coal to propel. they duplicated the might and energy of their big, big brothers.

The tin toy makers in both Europe and the U.S. realized that profits could be made by selling toy trains to the masses and jumped on the toy train bandwagon.



Here in America, Murray Beacon patented an electric train in 1883. Electric trains became commercially successful by 1897 when the Cincinnati firm of Carlisle and Finch manufactured and sold a two-gauge unit for only three dollars. This company was the first to issue a model railway builder's instruction manual.

In 1891, Märklin began producing wind-up toy trains that ran on expandable sectional tracks and the following year created a sensation by making the first figure eight track layout. It also established a track gauge settings numbered from 0 to 4, which it presented that year at the Leipzig Toy Fair. These track gauges soon became international standards. Märklin began producing 0 gauge trains as early as 1895 and H0 scale in 1935. In 1972, the company rolled out diminutive Z scale trains, the smallest in the world in competition to Arnold Rapido's introduction of N gauge.



Märklin’s owners noted that toy trains, like doll houses, offered the potential for future profits when, after the initial purchase, owners would expand by purchasing accessories for years to come. So , Märklin offered additional rolling stock and track with which to expand its boxed sets.

The Golden Age of Toy Trains
Many consider the years prior to World War I to be the "Golden Age" of quality model trains. As the war approached, manufacturers converted their factories to produce war monitions, rifles and replacement parts. The Depression that followed the war precluded many of these operators from coming back and many disappeared.



Those were the electric trains produced from the early 1900's and continuing to the present day. But the ones made prior to World War II, especially “O” and Standard gauges, had a pride of ownership by those lucky enough to own one of those big metal monsters manufactured by numerous companies, but eventually dominated by three—Ives. American Flyer, and Lionel. These were the trains played with by the dads and granddads of yesterday.

In America, the Ives Company was the first major model train manufacturer. Established in Plymouth, Connecticut, in 4444, Edward Ives specialized (from the very beginning) in toy locomotives that were pulled or pushed along the floor. It wasn't long afterward that his company progressed to making units of clockwork construction utilizing a coil spring and a wind-up key. Concurrently, a friction toy train was being developed, featuring a momentum flywheel that furnished its power.

In 1880's, Ives changed over from tin to cast iron for most of its toys. Even live steam train ca. I890-1900 though Edward Ives was no longer associated with the company, the new management chose to retain the Ives name. However, a disastrous fire destroyed the factory in 1900.

About 10 years later, the electric train had achieved respectability and public acceptance. Ives, at that time, dominated the field. In 1912, the company added trains in ,9"1" gauge.

Lionel Trains
Joshua Lionel Cowen, a super salesman and a as part of person of immense ego, set up a small business in New York City in 1901. An inventor of somewhat limited ability, he claimed to have invented the flashlight, the dry cell battery and the electric fan. Time does tarnish the truth and also the memory, so that years later while in conversation, Cowen really believed that ' he had invented those appliances.

The following year, after receiving a small order from a Rhode Island firm, Cowen incorporated the business under the name of the "Lionel Manufacturing Company". No longer was a model toy train a once a year Christmas specialty item. Now, progressive manufacturers and advertising agencies implanted a year 'round craving in every father and son...and grandfathers too.

The plant moved from New York City to New Haven, Connecticut and then to Newark, New Jersey. Always. the innovator, Cowen patented his very own gauge for trains, calling it "Standard Gauge". Wider than the others at 2 1/8", his hold on the market was so strong that his competitors followed suite and changed their gauge without a murmur As time elapsed, he made tracks in five gauges.



Once Cowen had a foothold in the market, he expanded into making accessories, such as, tunnels, bridges, hills, forests and depots, all semi-real and never architecturally exact, but still exciting.

At Lionel’s peak, it employed upwards of 1,000 employees. Then it bottomed out. But the company continued to exist, despite business and industrial catastrophies.

By 1910, Lionel began producing large electric type engines all using the square-cab design and having either our or six wheels and coming in sets with dump or ballast cars. Gradually in the next decade there would be additional electric engines with eight wheels and pulling rolling stock often running four to six inches wide and sometimes more than a foot long. They also made a few passenger cars to go along with the engines. Lionel workers screwed the bodies of the cars to the floor, enabling the car bottom to be dropped out for interior lighting which first became available in 1911.

By 1921. Ives Railway Lines began to manufacture big electric trains using the ad "Ives Toys Make Happy Boys.” Ives was to make some beautiful sets valued by collectors today, including the President Washington and the Ives Railway Circus, both of which are hard In find. But Ives would fall on hard times, and the company filed for bankruptcy in 1928.

American Flyer Trains
Another company American Flyer, began in Chicago, Illinois in 1907. Their early models seemed to be an exact copy of Ives. At once successful, by following Lionel's "Standard Gauge", they expanded laterally, absorbing parts of Ives stock in 1928, until A.C. Gilbert absorbed them.

Just prior to this, in 1925. the American Flyer Co. introduced what they called "Wide Gauge" electric trains with lithographed passenger sets and freight in bright colors such as orange boxcars, red gondolas. and an ivory and tan caboose. The company added some beautiful passenger sets including the Flying Colonel. the President Special, and the Mayflower. In 1929, it added a line of steam engines with unique Vanderbilt style tenders, some of which had brass piping on the sides with complete valve gear.

But the Great Depression wasn’t kind to Standard gauge sets of American Flyer either, and like Ives just a few years before, the company ceased building large train sets in 1936. Since there are relatively few of these large American Flyer trains available in contrast to Lionel, which produced these large sets and accessories from 1910 to 1939, they are very collectible today.



The 1920s and I930's was termed the Classic Period by Lionel. It was during those years that Lionel introduced its largest and most expensive line of steam engines. This included the famous Blue Comet set, the largest steam engine ever made by Lionel, and four trailing plush passenger cars with interior lights, nickel journals, 12-wheel trucks, individual seating and brass steps. This is one of the most prized collector's items today.

Among Lionel freight sets, the large crane car, with a boom more than a foot long, is an item which brought delight to the dads of yesteryear as did the large red caboose of American Flyer with brass trimmings and interior lighting.



Most toy train collectors focus on equipment from a single manufacturer, with those collecting Lionel trains the most dominant and American Flyer ones a close second.

Collecting Toy Trains
Many toy train collectors collect the equipment with which they played as children. Through the 1970s Lionel train collectors dominated the collecting scene. A few old timers collected the pre-World War I material. American Flyer equipment and accessories were almost totally ignored. In early 1980's American Flyer got hot, due in part to the rapidly increasing prices of older Lionel material.

Until the mid-1980's most toy train collections usually contained a mixed variety of engines and rolling stock. There was some, but not a lot, of emphasis on collecting cataloged sets. Today acquiring a cataloged set, complete in its original box, is the goal of the sophisticated collector. Cataloged set values are doubling or tripling every few years. Prior to this trend, a person could receive more money when selling their set if they broke the set apart and sold the pieces separately. This is no longer true.



Though toy train engines and rolling stock are worth money, collectors also seek out the operating equipment and accessories, such as tracks, transformers, signals, stations, coal loaders, and action cars.

The toy trains which dad and granddad played with in days gone ”The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toy.”


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