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    

Estate Find Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge 400e Black Loco & Tender All OriginalLionel Standard Gauge No. 53 Electric Locomotive-circa 1920-original?, Very NiceLionel Standard Gauge Nos.180,181,182 Pass. Cars, Circa 1920, Original? NiceLionel 390e & 390t Tender Estate Find Needs Wheels & A Little Tlc No Reserve100 Yr Old Lionel Std Gauge #1912 LocomotiveLionel Standard Gauge Nos. 31,32,35,36 Passenger Cars, Circa 1921, Original!American Flyer Standard. Gauge Flying Colonel Set!!Vintage Lionel 390e 2-4-2 Bild-a-loco Steam Locomotive~standard Gauge Beauty!Lionel Trains Prewar #402e Electric Locomotive, Standard Gauge GaugeLionel #400e Engine & TenderAmerican Flyer 754 Double Trestle BridgeLionel 6-32999 Red & Cream Tinplate Hellgate Bridge Mt/boxLionel Standard Gauge 402e Dual Engine Very Nice Original Condition Lionel 6-14163 #840 Tinplate Industrial Power Station Mt/boxMth 1130092 American Flyer Lines Yellow 4010 Tank Car Ex/boxMth 10-1250-1 Christmas No. 384 Steam Passenger Set W/proto-sound 2.0 Ex/boxAmerican Flyer. Original Shasta 4637 Loco. No Reserve.Bing Gauge 1 Baggage CarIves Station Tin Litho Prewar Use With Lionel Standard/0 Gauge C174Lionel Pre-war No. 79 Flashing Highway Signal, Circa 1930's-original-very NiceAmerican Flyer Hamiltonian Set. Very Nice Original!!! No Reserve.Lot Of 2 Pre War Lionel No 212 Standard Gauge Maroon Gondolas - No ReserveMth 1130090 American Flyer Lines Red 4006 Hopper Car NibAmerican Flyer Cast Iron 4670 Loco 4671 Tender. No Reserve.Rare Pre War Lionel No. 440 Signal Bridge - No ReserveLionel Pre-war Standard Scale #219 Crane Car--great Restoration CandidateOriginal Lionel 409e Apple Green Matched Set. With Dining Car. No Reserve!Ives Wide Standard Gauge Engine Truck Wheel Cow Catcher 3243American Flyer Flying Colonel Cars. Restored. Nice Set!!! No Reserve.Mth 1130089 American Flyer Lines Blue 4020 Stock Car NibMarklin Original Prewar Gauge1 Reingold CoachRare Pre War Lionel No 440 C Standard Gauge Panel Board - No ReserveAmerican Flyer. Original Hamiltonian 4678 Loco. No Reserve.Mth 1130091 American Flyer Lines Green 4017 Sand Car NibAmerican Flyer Original Steam Loco. No Reserve.Rare Pre War Lionel No 219 Standard Gauge Crane Peacock & Red - No Reserve(2) Early American Flyer Train Street Lamp Posts# 2009 & 2210 Nr (dakotapaul)American Flyer Telegraph Pole For 4267 Or 4220 Bridge Train Set Part Original Mccoy Copper Boxcar - One Of A KindLionel 402, With Original Box & Nice Original Wheels! No Reserve!Lionel 8 Maroon Std Gauge Electric From 1925Mccoy Rare "up Boy" Circus BoxcarAmerican Flyer 4637 Shasta Loco. Outstanding Restoration!!! No Reserve.Rare Lionel #12 Early Lake Shore Gondola 1906-07 Original Patent Pending Truck Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge Loco 390e In Master CartonLionel #29 (standard Gauge) Day Coach Flawless Restoration Scarce Ives 89 Water Tower. Original Condition. No Reserve.Hard To Find Pre War Marklin & Cie German Metal Mountain Tunnel 17" - No ReserveOutstanding Pre War Lionel No. 92 Flood Light Tower - No ReserveLionel Pre-war Standard Scale #218 Dump Car With Box-good ShapeAmerican Flyer 750 Trestle Bridge Works!Lionel Mth Standard Gauge Train TrackMth 1130093 Americn Flyer Lines Orange 4022 Machine Car NibOriginal Pre War Lionel No. 217 Standard Gauge Caboose - No ReserveLionel Standard Gauge Original 212 Gondola Prewar Lionel Standard Scale 318e, 309, 310, 312 Train SetLionel Prewar #10 Standard Gauge Electric Locomotive Shell With Trim Original Lionel Stephen Girard Set. No Reserve!American Flyer . Very Nice Original!!! No Reserve.High Grade Lionel No. 4400n Signal Bridge Late Colors No Reserve (dakotapaul)