For non-enthusiasts the concept that there is a difference between a ‘toy’ train and a ‘model’ train is a subtle one. Granted both hobbies involve small trains that may or may not be replicas of existing larger ones – but really that is where the comparison ends. Toy trains are typically marketed to young children and for many of us are what introduced us to the concept of our current sport, while Model trains, also known as prototyping, is a near art form with the recreation in exact scale of real or potential trains and layouts being the goal.
Some of the earliest known toy trains, made of cast iron were introduced in the early 19th century and many of these units had motors, wind up clockwork engines or even steam-powered locomotives. Prior to the 1850’s there were no real toys or models, but all of that was set to change when a German firm named Märklin that created dollhouse accessories attempted to broaden its market to include young boys and created a box set of a train and a track, with extra tracks, rolling stock and buildings available as accessories.
Electric driven models soon followed, arguably first introduced by Carlisle and Finch in 1897 in the U.S. and revolutionized by the Lionel corporation these models gained in popularity and sophistication with advents such as lighting, ability to change direction and ‘real’ smoke being just a few of the features introduced. Made primarily of tin there was little to no distinction between a toy and a model railroad until after the 1950’s when the more modern emphasis on realism began.
A brief lack of interest occurred in the late 50’s but a major resurgence occurred in the late 90’s due in part to the popularity of the children’s program Thomas the Tank Engine. Today many S and O gauge systems still are sold as toys but ironically you are more likely to find an HO or N scale train set in a toy store then an O gauge set due to the costs. For more on toy trains you may want to visit the following site:
The National Toy Train Museum which is run by the Train Collectors Association based out of Strasburg, Pennsylvania.
Very few of the original tinplate toy trains still exist since those materials were very fragile and prone to decay. Of those few who do remain collectors have been known to pay top dollar but don’t expect to get rich if you have one in your attic.
Whether you are a collector or just a curious prototype enthusiast you really should investigate the amazing history of toy trains. You might even find yourself tempted to pick up a few yourself!