Model trains have been around for many generations. From the most simple “iron horse” replicas in the 1800s to the more sophisticated railroad sets today, trains have remained on the wish lists of both the old and young.
The fundamental idea of trains sees back much further in the past. First, the ancient Romans created a paved railway system for their animal-drawn wagons. Then later, horse-drawn wagons were built in England’s coal mining regions on the same fundamental idea to transport coal from mines to the river loading sites. Both of these are the precursors for today’s modern trains.
During the 1800s, when trains and railroad tracks laced America’s countryside, toymakers noticed the potential demand for model trains, as people everywhere were wanting a little piece of the action. Soon enough, miniature models of these giant trains were displayed on store shelves everywhere, especially during Christmas.
However, the concept of collecting miniature railroads didn’t originate in America. In the 1830s, German crafters created the original miniature trains that you could push along a track. The Germans made them by pouring molten tin or brass into a mold and are made much like the famous tin soldiers. Then, hand-carved wooden fittings were attached to the metal bases, forming a full toy train. Usually, they were extremely fragile and bore no moving parts.
The French, who were master whitesmiths, were the ones who created elaborately decorated toy trains with spidery spoked wheels, elegant designs, and tall chimneys. They were pretty fanciful but, unfortunately, don’t run on rails. Instead, you have to push them across the floor. Sadly, paint doesn’t cling well to tin, and as a consequence, these early French toy trains are seldom preserved with their original designs.
England was the home of the Industrial Revolution, and the residing toymakers there took the creation of model trains seriously. Sir Henry Wood is attributed to developing one of the earliest steam-powered toys. The “Piddlers” and “Dribblers” were nicknamed due to the steam cylinders’ tell-tail trail of leftover water.
It’s fascinating to note that European artisans who created musical instruments were the first to build toy trains. Soon, they started fitting clockwork mechanisms to their toy trains, erasing the mess of the early steam-powered versions. Newton & Co. of London produced incredibly intricate brass models for the offsprings of wealthy families. However, they were neither made to scale nor realistic and were created to trigger the creativity of the collectors. Unfortunately, these individually hand-crafted toy trains manufactured in Europe were too costly to be sold in America. As a result, U.S. toy manufacturers had to start mass production of train replicas economically to compete in the marketplace.
In the 1830s, Mathias Baldwin, the founder of the Baltimore Locomotive Works, built an early passenger train model. And by the end of the decade, numerous other toymakers had created their versions. Connecticut’s George Brown & Co. is credited with inventing the earliest identified self-propelled American model train that utilized clockworks in 1856.
American toy companies from the 1890s to the early 1900s produced train replicas at such reduced prices that most middle-class families could buy model trains for their young ones. However, as the demand rose, Americans began expecting more authenticity and realism from toy manufacturers.
It wasn’t long until the public searched for more than just a mere locomotive. The people began to cry for complete train systems with passenger cars, wagons, stations, and tracks.
Meanwhile, Theodore Marklin, one of the most successful German toymakers in Europe, founded the first segmented track and figure-eight layout. He also produced the first electric train set of Europe.
Stefan Bing, another German toymaker, and W. J. Bassett-Lowke, a British firm, established a partnership during the Paris Exhibition of 1900 and pledged to manufacture more authentic train models in Europe. In addition, Bing sparked the public’s interest in model train collectors by disseminating an assembly guide book titled “The Little Railway Engineer.”
Joshua Lionel Cohen has established Lionel in the early 1900s, producing the most legendary trains. The company started by creating small electric motors to power the electric trains, but soon after World War I, it rose to be the biggest name in model train production. They became the standard of excellence for evaluating American toy train manufacturers.
During the 1920s, the American Flyer broke into the model train market with cheaper and larger trains. Their intricately decorated passenger trains were an immense success. However, Lionel outshined them again by offering the public more spectacular models.
Model trains became more functional and after World War II. The trains are highly valued by collectors who like to run their trains. Boys and men meet today to create layouts so realistic and elaborate that viewers become enchanted by the trains in action. They gather collectively with their friends and families to rekindle their admiration of “the railroad days” and pleasant childhood memories.