In 1906, Lionel introduced a new line of model trains that ran on track with a width (between rails) of 2.125 inches. In order to power the electric locomotives, the track included a third rail in the middle, which conveyed electricity.

After coming up with a slogan that proclaimed “Lionel—Standard of the World,” Lionel named the design “Standard Gauge” and filed a trademark. Lionel derived the name from an incorrect interpretation of a gauge defined by the German toy company Märklin. Whereas Lionel measured width between rails, Märklin measured the width from the center of one rail to the center of the other.

In fact, this “standard” gauge was decidedly non-standard—European manufacturers had settled on two inches, as had Carlisle & Finch, the company that invented the toy train. The No. 1 gauge was much smaller, at 1.75 inches. But “standard” stuck and, more importantly, implied the sizes of other brands were, in fact, the strange ones.

Regardless, Lionel’s standard gauge trains became exceedingly popular, especially in the 1920s, when the company’s care and attention to detail helped it dominate the market. Models like the super-realistic State-series passenger cars and the huge Shasta locomotive (the highly prized No. 381 E) thrilled kids—not to mention collectors today.

But Lionel’s trademark didn’t prevent other companies from producing their own 2.125-inch trains, which they generally called “wide gauge” instead. American Flyer, Ives, and Dorfan all entered the market, often with success.

Founded in 1924 by German immigrants Milton and Julius Forchheimer, Dorfan specialized in wide- and O-gauge trains. Whereas Lionel promoted itself as the standard, Dorfan pitched a slightly different angle—its trains, the company proclaimed, were easy to disassemble and reassemble. Accordingly, the company encouraged its young users to do just that as a way of learning about the trains’ design and inner-workings. Like Lionel, Dorfan also pushed for increasingly high levels of detail, including illustrations of passengers in their train windows. Like many other businesses of that era, Dorfan could not survive the Great Depression.

Dorfan locomotives are highly valuable today because of the copper-zinc alloy the company used to manufacture them. This metal—now known as “Dorfan alloy”—was prone to impurities...

Another producer of standard-gauge trains was Ives, which began as a toy company in 1868. Buoyed by its famous slogan, “Ives Toys make Happy Boys,” Ives was making toy trains early on. In 1921, it introduced its own line of wide-gauge trains to compete with Lionel, perhaps motivated by a fierce personal rivalry between Harry Ives and J. L. Cowen of Lionel.

Although Lionel bought out Ives in 1931, Ives made an important contribution to the history of toy collecting in the 1920s when it arranged exhibitions of its trains in New York galleries and showrooms. Many historians believe these shows sparked an interest in old toys as collectible objects.

American Flyer was another player in the wide-gauge market, producing its first wide-gauge trains in 1925. Unfortunately, within just a few years the size began to fall out of fashion. As it had done with Ives, Lionel eventually bought out American Flyer—that consolidation occurred in 1967.

Once a mighty fad in the 1920s, wide- or standard-gauge trains were killed by the hard times of the Depression. Instead, companies shifted to O gauge trains, which were smaller, and therefore cheaper, to manufacture. Even Lionel, the inventor of the standard gauge, discontinued its own line in 1940, although it reproduced its standard-gauge trains in 1990s for collectors eager to own a piece of the past.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Airfix Model Railways

Airfix Model Railways

Dave McCarthy's Airfix Model Railway treasure trove is an in-depth archive of the company's plastic railway kits fr… [read review or visit site]

Gateway NMRA

Gateway NMRA

This great reference site for model railroaders, from the Gateway (St. Louis) division of the NMRA (National Model … [read review or visit site]

This site is a treasure trove of HO scale model railroad manufacturer catalogs and other reference information, inv… [read review or visit site]

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Postwar Lionel Trains Library

Bernie Schulz’s Lionel Trains Library focuses exclusively on postwar Lionel trains and accessories. The site cont… [read review or visit site]

Eric's Trains

Eric's Trains

Eric Siegel's site displays his collection of O-gauge/O-scale trains, tracks, turntables, and other accessories. A … [read review or visit site]

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT

MIT's model railroad club, as one might expect, has one of the best websites for learning about how people play wit… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge No.390e Blue Comet Steam Engine & TenderMth Standard Gauge Tinplate Blue Comet Passenger Set 420 421 422 423 10-1114Lionel Standard Gauge Pre-war 390e Bild-a-loco - Assorted Parts Mth Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge Blue Comet Passenger Car Set 420 & 421 & 422American Flyer Prewar #4012 Blue Flat CarDorfan Lines Wide Gauge Litho Freight Set, 4 Sections, 800 SeriesLionel Vintage Standard Gauge Train SetLionel Standard Gauge #33 Repainted For Parts Or RestoreLionel #384e/384t Black Steam Locomotive And TenderMth Lionel Standard Gauge Steam Locomotive #392e 4-4-2Bing Station & Accessories *1912American Flyer Prewar #4017 Orange Gondola American Flyer Standard Gauge Motor And Frame 4644,4654 Type For Parts Or RepairAll Original Ives Standard Gauge Toy Train # 40 Tender Shell Rare Restore PartAmerican Flyer Prewar #4010 Blue Tank CarRare 1906 Lionel Standard Gauge #6 Train Tender Solid 3-rivet Pat Pending TrucksAmerican Flyer 4010 Tank Car Restored Nice Have A Look ~~~~Lionel #38 Prewar Black Electric Locomotive Lionel Standard Gauge 0-4-0 Drive Unit Motor & Chassis OnlyLionel Standard Gauge Motor/chassisVintage Antique Metal Distressed Lionel Train Station, As Found W Losses SteampuLot Of 2 Dorfan #804 Blue Tank Cars (no Trucks)American Flyer 4022 Machinery Or Log Lumber Cars 5 Of Them With Extra PartsRare Lionel Standard Gauge Single & Double Goose Neck Street Lamp Posts 61/67Ives #3235r Olive Electric Locomotive And 2 Passenger Cars (170,172)Lionel Standard Gauge 61 Goose Neck Lamp Post 63 Double Light 79 Crossing SignalLionel Dark Maroon Standard Gauge #380 Electric Engine, 319.319,320,322Lionel Standard Gauge Peacock With Red Boom Crane Car 219Lionel Standard Gauge Mojave Dump Car 218Lionel Standard Gauge 0-4-0 Olive Green No. 10e Loco ShellPrewar American Flyer 4020 Stock Car Nice Orig. Lionel Standard Gauge 0-4-0 Olive Green No. 8 Electric LocoAmerican Flyer Prewar #4022 Orange Lumber CarAmerican Flyer Prewar #4007 Red Gondola American Flyer Prewar #4023 Orange Lumber CarAmerican Flyer Prewar #4020 Blue Stock CarAmerican Flyer Prewar #4011 Yellow CabooseLionel Standard Gauge Olive Green Orange Roof Cattle Car 513Vintage Lionel City Station 115 Cream Red Standard Gauge Model Train BuildingAmerican Flyer Prewar #4022 Orange/blue Lumber CarLionel Standard Gauge Prewar Signals & Accessories Parts Whole Pile 1 Lot No ResLionel Classics Standard Gauge Tinplate Old #7 Steam Engine Brass Finish 6-13104Ives Railway Lines #89 Water Tower Tinplate Made By Lyle Cain Marx LionelLionel Standard Gauge Ivory Refrigerator Car 514Lionel Standard Gauge 10 Series #13 Stock Car And #15 Tank Car Parts Or RestoreMth Lct Tinplate Standard Gauge Lionel Celebration 115 Station, Item 11-90061Mth Tinplate Standard Gauge Ives 180 Series Passenger Set, Item # 10-5083, NewMccoy Standard Gauge Set Tca9 Brand New Standard Gauge Locomotive Wheels & 4 Standard Gauge Trucks3-american Flyer Passenger Cars Check Em Out .~~~~~American Flyer Prewar #4017 Green Gondola Mth Tinplate Standard Gauge 418 Passenger Set In Orange, Item # 10-1106Vintage Lionel Train Engine No.8, Cars #s 332, 337, 338 W/ Some Boxes, Must SeeAmerican Flyer Prewar #4018 Cream/blue Automobile BoxcarLionel Standard Gauge PartsLionel Dual Motor Standard 402 Engine Mohave Tan + Passenger Set # 319 318 317Model Rr - Two Lionel Pre-war Tin Litho Houses - 184-1 Bungalows - With LightsLionel Standard Gauge 332 339 341 Railway Mail, Observation, PullmanAmerican Flyer Prewar #4021 Red CabooseMccoy Standard Gauge Tpc Circus Stock Car Lettered One Side Only