Early Toys Trains

About 100 years before Neil Armstrong took "one giant leap for mankind" another historic milestone was attained when rival railroads Union Pacific and Central Pacific met at Promontory Point, Utah. When the last two spikes were produced, one of gold and one of silver, Western Union telegraph wires relayed the message instantaneously to the nation. From Philadelphia to San Francisco bells clanged and people cheered. Many hardships and difficulties were encountered in the wild five year race that laid down 1,776 miles of track. The result was that mankind could now ride her great "iron horse" from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The west was open and a new modern era had begun.

Grasping even the basic fundamentals in a subject as colossal as antique toy trains is a huge chore left best in the hands of specialists. However, for enthusiasts and treasure hunters the topic is too important to dismiss. This column's perennial message is that you already understand more about antiques than you know. To imagine the experience of a locomotive crossing paths with a wagon train is to comprehend our forefather's shared joy when the costly toy model was unwrapped around this time of the year. That enthusiasm is carried on by collector's today.

The earliest toy trains were hand-fashioned out of lead and tin from the cottage industries of Germany and France. Models made for the American market will often include American names on the cars and the locomotives will be front-fitted with the western "cow-catcher."  In England, instrument makers fabricated sophisticated models out of iron and brass for rich children and their parents.

Early American toy industries mass-produced their products due to shortages of labor, focusing on locomotives. The first American self-propelled "clockwork" tinplate trains were produced in 1856 by George W. Brown & Company. Not surprisingly, Brown was located in the center of America's clock making industry; Forestville, CT.  Pioneer toy manufacturers like Ives of Bridgeport, CT, Wikins of Keene, NH, Carpenter of Port Chester, NY, and Milton Bradley, of Springfield, MA, followed suit producing wide varieties of trains from tin, cast iron, and lithographed wood block. Pristine examples of these early vintage toys can fetch hundreds and even thousands of dollars today.

The great German toy company Marklin(whose ingenious antique toys are amongst the most sought after today) revolutionized the train industry by introducing tinplate track in standardized sections in 1891, and electric train sets in 1898. The train was no longer just a toy to be scooted about on the floor like a wooden boat; it was now part of an operable railway system.

Late 19th and 20th century model trains are distinguished by the width of their track, called "gauge."  Dominant 19th C. German firms like Marklin, Karl Bub, Plank, and Bing were gradually surmounted in the early 20th century by American electric train manufacturers Ives, American Flyer, and Lionel. Joshua Lionel Cowen, founder of Lionel Corporation understood that the new generation of children would tire of toys that just go round in circles. He introduced interactive automated systems to his train sets that raised bridges, pumped oil, and herded cattle so that the "little nippers wouldn't set fire to the curtains."

Following the path of its archetype, the glory days of the toy train and the model railroad would end shortly after the conclusion of W.W.II. The great era of the iron horse will always be remembered by collectors of history.

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Wayne Mattox Antiques | 82 Main Street North | Woodbury, CT 06798 | 203-263-2899 | wayne@antiquetalk.com
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