Toy Trains

The advent of the train in the early nineteenth century had a profound effect on communities throughout the world. Towns grew in vast tracts of previously uninhabited territory and formerly remote villages became accessible. For the first time it was possible to move troops, mail, and freight quickly, and it became much easier for travelers to seek out exciting new areas to explore. The train also had a profound effect on the toy industry. With the arrival of the new technology came the promise of interesting new possibilities in toy design at a time when industrialization and commerce were expanding at a tremendous pace, and research into science and technology was becoming an important educational option for boys.

Very early toy trains were simple TOYS of wood or metal usually consisting of a locomotive with a carriage and wagon that was pushed along the floor. Commercial production of toy trains did not take off until after the opening of the first German railway between Nuremberg and Furth in 1835. This event was immediately commemorated by makers of metal flats, simple flat one-piece models cast in pewter with no working parts. The introduction of mass-produced rolled milled steel around 1850 permitted the production of cheap toys. They were made from thin steel coated with tin to prevent rusting ("tinplate") and stamped and pressed or rolled into a variety of shapes. Key names in the manufacture of tinplate trains and other toys in Germany were Bing, Carette in Nuremberg, Märklin in Göppingen, and Lehmann in Brandenburg. S. Güntermann and J. Issmayer were two important pioneers of the clockwork railway. The model steam train first appeared in the 1860s and grew in popularity over the next two decades. Trains were powerful, "fun" toys, and many children were introduced to physics and engineering through playing with them.

The demand for more realistic trains grew rapidly, and during the period from the 1880s to World War I some of the most authentic and complete systems were produced. Notable manufacturers included George Carette, Issmayer, Fleischmann, Bing, Plank, and Bub. In 1891 Märklin merged with another firm, Lutz, and introduced a gauge system and accessories which for the first time made it possible for children to set up and run a railway system, enabling them to organize and control this miniature mechanized world. Other important names in the toy train industry were JEP and Rossignol in France, and Ives and Lionel in the United States. The Ives product, which had no rails, was unique in the toy trade for being made in cast iron.

In Britain the force behind the toy train market was W.J. Bassett-Lowke, which joined forces with Bing in 1900 to import and sell trains that were adapted for the British market. Bassett-Lowke was determined that the toy trains be accurate copies of the real thing, and the resulting products were hugely popular. F. Hornby, known also for Meccano, started to produce clockwork trains in 1915, followed by the first electric train sets in about 1925. World War II took a heavy toll on the toy train industry. After the war new toys competed for the affections of children and many firms closed in the 1960s, but toy trains continue to be manufactured, including the well-known names of Märklin, Fleischmann, Lehmann, and Hornby. Model railway production today could not exist without the extensive use of high-quality plastics and sophisticated electronic controls, plus some very accomplished miniature engineering.

See also: Cars as Toys; Collections and Hobbies; Construction Toys; Toy Soldiers.


Carlson, Pierce. 1986. Toy Trains: A History. London: Gollancz.

Levy, Allen. 1974. A Century of Model Trains. London: New Cavendish Books.

Marsh, Hugo, and Pierce Carlson. 2002. Christie's Toy Railways. London: Pavilion Books.

Reder, Gustav. 1972. Clockwork, Steam, and Electric: A History of Model Railways. Trans. C. Hamilton Ellis. London: Ian Allan.