Antique Toy Train Collecting...

During the 125 years that toy trains were produced, their design and motive power have changed dramatically. Moreover, toy trains did not initially run on tracks. It was only in 1891 that the German firm Marklin produced the first standardized sectional track for toy trains.

Early Antique Trains

Made of wood, tinplate, cast iron, or brass, early toy trains were either operated manually or by hand, clockwork, or simple spring mechanisms. Handmade live-steam locomotives were introduced in Europe after the mid-19th century. Steam locomotives and antique toy trains were subsequently mass-produced in the United States by such firms as Garlick, Eugene Beggs, and Weeden well into the 1920s. Among the many firms that manufactured tinplate clockwork trains were Brown, Schlesinger, Fallows, and the company Althof, Bergmann. In the 1880s tinplate trains lost favor to cast-iron ones, which were mass-produced in huge quantities by J. & E. Stevens, Pratt & Letchworth, and Francis W. Carpenter. In turn, during the 1890s cast iron was replaced by lithographed tinplate. The use of this lighter metal significantly reduced the cost of distributing and shipping these toys. 

Electric Trains - Considered More of a Collectible than an Antique

An American, Murray Bacon, patented the first electric toy train in 1884, and Carlyle and Finch manufactured the first American electric train in 1897. Other companies, including Ives, quickly followed suit. Ives became the major American manufacturer of electric trains, turning out dozens of different types, most of which resembled full-size models. German makers, including Karl Bub, Bing, and Marklin initially offered stiff competition. In the early 20th century, however, tariff regulations became unfavorable to European manufacturers and American-made toy electric trains dominated the field. Among the best early electric toy trains were those by Ives, Lionel, and American Flyer. By the 1920s Lionel surpassed Ives -- actually absorbing this famous firm in 1931 -- to become the world's largest producer of electric trains. 

Identifying Trains

Late 19th- and 20th-century trains can be distinguished by the width of the track, called the gauge. This measurement is the distance across the inner edges of the rails. Gauges 1 through 4 are primarily found on European trains, although Ives produced his first trains in 1 gauge. Standard gauge, measuring 2 1/8" across, was popular in the United States in the early 20th century. During the Depression standard-gauge trains lost favor because of their size and prohibitive cost, and most trains were made thereafter in 0 gauge, which measures only 11/4". The term "outline locomotive" is often used by collectors when referring to the profile of toy steam or electric train locomotives. Toy locomotive trains are also identified by the configuration of their wheels, called wheel alignment. A 2-4-2 locomotive, for example, has 2 pilot, 4 drive, and 2 trailing wheels. 

Just a Few Tips on Antique Toy Trains

Complete sets of these trains rarely appear on the market except at auction when an old established collection is being dispersed. It is often necessary to assemble trains car by car. 

Ever since trains first appeared in the 19th century, Americans have had romantic feelings about them, and toy trains of wood, tinplate, and cast iron have been widely made. Construction type train toys were intended to acquaint youngsters with the general characteristics of trains. A child could easily assemble these simplified wooden replicas of typical 1870s locomotives. 

Along with Ives and Secor, Carpenter was pioneer of cast-iron toy vehicles. Pull toy floor runner trains were one of the early toy trains his firm produced. During the last quarter of the 19th century, Carpenter patented many cast-iron toys, including trains and horse-drawn fire-fighting vehicles. 

Manufacturer's records and catalogues provide valuable information for identifying and dating trains, particularly when products of different firms look alike and can be mistaken for one another. Look for the facsimile of an original George W. Brown sketchbook, published in 1971 by Pyne Press, Princeton, New Jersey, which illustrates working drawings and designs for toys including many antique toy trains. 

A collector should be knowledgeable about all versions and components of the train he wishes to acquire. Examining catalogues and visiting toy museums or established private collections are helpful. 

Ives toy trains are highly desirable, particularly the early locomotives. Collectors familiar with Ives catalogues may be able to spot unmarked and unidentified toys made by the firm.

A Few Words of Warning

First, let's get the bad news out of the way. Like all other antique products your purchases of antique toy trains are not protected by any regulatory agencies, forcing the novice collector of antique toy trains to succumb to the phrase "Buyer Beware." 

But there is also some VERY good News about your search for collectible toy trains -- they are generally cheaper than many common antiques. This means you may find an opportunity for some bargains on individual pieces, but don't expect a great deal on a full set which are generally only found at auctions.

You are also not limited to the actual antique toy trains. Quality replicas of antique toys are generally available if you are after decoration items only and not that serious of a collector.

Less expensive or not, it is still important to get informed and do a little homework! Learn all you can about antique toy trains from library books, price guides, trade magazines and local antique clubs (these clubs have proven to be great sources of reliable information).

A Slightly Different View on the History of Toy Trains

Tin plate, mostly used for oil cans around 1874-1875, was originally used in the making of toys in --- Japan's entry came shortly thereafter. Eventually Japan became the tin plate toy-producing center of the world, leaving behind Germany which was totally devastated by the First World War.

In 1948, friction toys, shaped like trains emerged. By 1955, electronic trains took over the friction models. Only eight years afterwards, 60% of the exported toys in Japan were made out of tin plate.

By 1970 tin plate toys had gradually disappeared as plastic and advanced metal alloy toys emerged.

A Few Recommended Sources for More on Antique & Collectible Trains...

You probably have never heard of "Craig's List", but if you are looking for individual toy train sellers, it can be a good source. One of the web's oldest directories also has a category full of references you may want to check out -- the directory and category is DMOZ/Collecting Vintage Toys.