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    

Ives 1078r Std. Gauge Olympian Passenger Set: 3245r, 246, 247, 248 & 2493 Standard Gauge Pullmans Marked Daniel Trains With Prewar Lionel Couplers  Williams Reproductions Standard Gauge Ives Railway Passenger Cars (5)Brass Locomotive 18" Large Stan Ga. Hand Made Unbranded Model 5771-p Black ColorRare Boucher 2222 4-6-0 Steam Locomotive & Tender - RepaintedLionel Original Prewar 400e Blue Comet Loco And TenderLionel Lines Hellgate Bridge No.305 Near Mint No Box 30" Large X 12" X 10" RetroLionel Standard Gauge All Original Vintage Prewar 318e 309 310 312 Train Set Reproduction Ives 1764e Electric Locomotive W/(3) Passenger CarsM.t.h. Proto-drive No.9-e Standard Gauge Electric Locomotive Very NiceLionel Copy 54 Std. Gauge Brass 0-4-4-0 Electric Locomotive - Double MotorIves 3241 Standard Gauge Electric Loco 0-4-0 No ReserveDorfan 3920 Std. Gauge Brown 0-4-0 ' Whaleback' Loco-builder Electric LocomotiveThe Ives Railway Loco Motor No.3235 & Pullman Car No.186 Standard GagePrewar Lionel Standard Gauge Number 318e Restored Black Coal Train LocomotiveDark Green Lionel # 219 Prewar Standard Gauge Crane Car C.1930 Original As IsMamod Steam Tractor Engine Te-1a 1960's Made In England With Partial BoxIves 187 Tinplate Passenger Car & 189 Tinplate Observation CarIves 3236 0-4-0 Electric Locomotive W/(4) Passenger Cars- RepaintedLionel Original Prewar 384e Loco And 384t TenderLionel Lines No. 516 Standard Gauge Hopper CarPrewar Lionel Standard Gauge Cars For Parts Or Restoration 339 339 332 341 American Flyer Telegraph For Bridge Tunnel Standard Gauge #x8448Pride Lines Streetlamp. Gold Plated. Factory New..queen Mary 2000 TtosPrewar Lionel Standard Gauge Number 10e Restored Peacock Green LocomotiveMccoy Trains "chief Jeremy" Cast American Flyer Type EngineLionel Original Prewar Set Of Three Two Tone Brown Passenger CarsVintage American Flyer Hamiltonian Club Car 4340 Standard Gauge Parts Or Repair Lionel Standard Gauge Pre-war 514r Ventilated Refrigerator Car 1929-40 As IsLionel Prewar Standard Gauge Sunoco Tank Car #515 As IsPre-war Lionel Standard Gauge 14" Large With Original Partial BoxIves Standard Gauge 193 Stock Car Original Brown 1923-24 Good Conduition NoresLionel Pre-war #516 Standard Scale Red Two Bin Coal Hopper Car-good Original Pair Of Number 710 Lionel Pullmans New York Central Lines Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge Box Car #514Mikes Train House Mth Standard Gauge New York Central Transcontinental CombineMikes Train House Standard Gauge New York Central Transcontinental ObservationLionel 384 Tender Needs Assembly And Coal Load Dirty Needs Cleaning Rust TrucksIves 190 Std. Gauge Texas Oil Tank Car - Restored6 Standard Gauge American Flyer 4678 Headlights Pride Lines Walt Disney Donald Duck Figure 1996 Factory New C-10Lionel Prewar Standard Gauge Caboose #517 Lighted As IsMikes Train House Standard Gauge New York Central Transcontinental DinerLionel Standard Gauge Bridge Center Span Needs Columns Approaches Complete GoodLionel Restored Standard Gauge # 29 Day Coach. Original Lionel Trains Prewar 200 Standard Gauge Turntable Accessory Pride Lines Disneyworld 15th Year Lamp Post. Pewter.factory New..c-10..usa..1986Mccoy Trains Standard Gauge Collection Tca Pullmans And Baggage Car 83 84 85 86Vintage Pre War Lionel Standard Gauge 511 Flat Stake CarMikes Train House Standard Gauge New York Central Transcontinental Palor CarMikes Train House Mth Standard Gauge Lionel 220 Searchlight Car - BoxedEarly Prewar Lionel Standard Gauge #513 Green & Orange Cattle CarPride Lines Manoil Die-cast Fire Truck...factory New...1990's C-10Mikes Train House Mth Standard Gauge Lionel Lines #216 Hopper - RedPrewar 1930s Lionel Lines Standard Gauge 520 Double Searchlight Car Rolling StocMikes Train House Mth Standard Gauge Lionel Lines #213 Cream Cattle Car Lionel Standard Gauge 517 Caboose To Restore Pride Lines Std. Ga. Figures...2 Railroad Workmen ..factory New...1994 .. C-10Mikes Train House Mth Standard Gauge Lionel 217 Caboose - BoxedMikes Train House Mth Standard Gauge Lionel Lines #212 Maroon Gondola