Toys are not just for kids

As a child, every December my father
constructed a Lionel model train set in our basement. The electric locomotive traveled through and around winter
villages to the enjoyment of our friends and family. As an adult, I have continued this tradition with my own family.

Train exhibits are plentiful throughout the
Brandywine Valley area in both personal homes as well as public places. One only need to visit the Brandywine
River Museum or Longwood Gardens to notice children and as well as adults
admiring the wide variety of locomotives and accessories. So how did model
trains become such an obsession in American culture?

The earliest toy trains were made from tin,
wood, cast iron or brass and operated manually or by a simple spring mechanism.
The electric model train was the brainchild of German toy manufacturer Marklin,
who produced the first electric train set in 1891. However these trains were costly and designed for the
wealthy. Marklin produced both
beginner sets as well as accessory parts so one could personalize their railway

Across the ocean in America, Carlyle and
Finch, a Cincinnati toy manufacturer produced the first American electric train
in 1897. Carlyle and Finch created
a variety of model trains, often replicas of the actual railroad. By the turn of the century, other
American companies followed suit.
This group included Joshua Cowen, the founder of Lionel Train. Cowen had vision and savvy that changed
the model train industry in America.

His initial train design was inspired by a
push train that he noticed in a store display window. Cowen envisioned the
mechanism going around a track. In
1901, the Electric Express was created by Cowen not as a toy, but as an eye
catching window display for other merchandise in a Manhattan store. The train display was so popular that
the store owner called Cowen the following day with six train orders and the next
year Lionel Corporation was started.
During the early 1900’s Americans were awed by the railroads as well as
electricity and subsequently electric model trains were an immediate success.

After WWI, tariff regulations became
unfavorable to the competitive European manufacturers Marklin, Karl Bub and
Bing. As a result, the American
electric model train manufacturers, including Lionel, Ives and American Flyer
increased their market share.
During the 1920’s Lionel purchased Ives to become the world’s largest
producer of electric trains. Lionel remained a market leader through the
Depression and World War II despite financial strains and metal shortages.
After the war, the Lionel Corporation went into a decline that paralleled that
of the American Railroad industry.

As the electric model train industry was
spiraling downward in America, British model locomotives designed by James
Stanley Beeson continued to be in demand. Beeson began making model trains in
the 1920’s and was supplying locomotive models to the British film industry.
After World War II, he altered manufacturing materials by replacing tin plate
for nickel silver. Beeson’s model
trains were exquisitely handcrafted and by the 1970’s he was the leading
railway model maker in the world.

Model trains are still enjoyed by both
children and adults however the prices for these toys can be astonishing. For instance, a Lionel #2350 painted
nose New Haven Electric sold at an American auction recently for $2,300 and a
Beeson O” gauge Electric 3-rail tank locomotive produced in nickel silver sold
for close to $8,000 in England. Thus the toys of our youth have become the
collector’s items of our present.

* Colleen
Boyle is an appraisal consultant for Freeman’s, America’s oldest auction and
appraisal company. She holds
advanced degrees in art history and a diploma in French fine and decorative arts
from Christie’s Paris. She has
appraised art and antiques for private collectors and corporations throughout
the U.S. and regularly publishes articles about art and collecting. 610-470-5340 (phone),



1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (No Ratings Yet)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.