History of Model Trains

June 10, 2009 by  
Filed under Antique Toy History

The love of model trains transcends age and gender. It could be because of the memories associated to the popular Lionel train set under the Christmas tree that model trains are so beloved.

The first model trains were curiously not geared toward children. They were used as promotional and sale models to promote the railways. It was instrumental in public relations to persuade those who have never ridden a train to do so.

The first complete clockwork train sets were made in the 1890s by a company called Marklin. The price of the set was rather expensive, though, and only the wealthy could afford them. Marklin had a complete product line that included beginner train sets, accessories, parts, different kinds of locomotives and tracks. The model train captured the attention and imagination of children who have always loved different modes of transportation such as trucks, airplanes and trains.

A period of growth followed. Other companies joined the model train industry. It was also discovered that a sophisticated version, the model railways, would appeal to adults. Many of the model railways manufacturers were located in Germany. It was during WWI when imports to the U.S. had been halted, that American companies were founded. In 1900, Ives, an American toy maker, decided to join the competition with clockwork tinplate trains in gauges 0 and 1. Lionel, another US manufacturer, not only utilized the European style tinplate tracks, but offered electric trains. Another advantage to the additional competition was the price of model train became more reasonable as U.S. manufacturers produced sets that were simplified. American Flyer also was a competitor in the American market. Anti German feelings during WWI led to the success of many American model train producers.

Innovations kept pace with consumer wants. An escalating trend was the infusion of increasing smaller scales. OO and HO gauge grew out of collaboration for table top toy. While the Bing Table Top system was not considered successful, it did spur an increased interest by adult modelers who favored this size. It was during this time that two scales were introduced in Britain, the HO 1/87 scale and OO 1/76 scale. Another trend was the increasing popularity of model railways as a hobby. Publications focused entirely on model railways were introduced and the hobby became quite popular in the United States and in the United Kingdom. The toy makers noted that parents usually were the ones to buy the train sets for their children. The way to expand their demographics was to produce a train set that the father would enjoy. Toy trains were adapted to adult tastes by incorporating more realistic detailing.

Another world war improved the standings of U.S model train manufacturers. Out of the leading toy train producers, only the U.S. companies avoided the devastation and physical damage from the war.

Model trains were a major toy during the 1950s. In a strange turn of events, as the real railways began to suffer a major loss in ridership due to cars and planes, the demand for toy trains decreased dramatically also. Some companies consolidated and other established brands disappeared.

There have been upturns and downturns in the model train industry. There still exists a large market for the toy trains whether it is a child or an adult enthusiast.