For serious railroad aficionados, the word “tinplate” is synonymous with “toy trains,” meaning a miniature train that is not made to scale. Toy trains often have oversize elements like smokestacks or wheels. Model trains, by contrast, are authentic replicas of real trains, correctly proportioned right down to the smallest handrail.

True-to-scale model trains were actually first produced as prototypes and marketing tools in 1784, a full 20 years before the first life-size steam locomotive huffed and puffed along two rails in Wales. When the railroad eventually captured the hearts and imaginations of people in Europe and America in the 1840s, toy makers started producing miniature trains for children to play with.

Like toy soldiers, the earliest toy trains were made of lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels that turned, but these had to be pushed or pulled. A few of the early 19th-century push toy trains were made of tinplate, like the large, durable, stylized locomotive toys in the U.S., which were painted red and gold and decorated with hearts and flowers.

Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be stamped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than ever before. In Europe, particularly in France and Germany, these new techniques were employed to mass-produce tinplate clockwork toys, moving human and animal figurines, boats, cars, motorcycles, and, naturally, toy trains. Other tin-toy manufacturers, particularly those in Britain, made toy trains out of tin or brass that ran on steam—they were called “piddlers” or “dribblers” because of their propensity to leak.

Still, 19th-century toy trains lacked one important element, a track. Even though Germany dominated the tin-toy market with top-notch companies like Lehmann, Bing, Issmayer, Carette, and Günthermann, it was a French company, E.F. LeFèvre Successeurs, that made the first stations, signals, and sheds of tinplate to accompany its trains. The LeFèvre train “track” was rather primitive, though; a circle of tin with two grooves in it for the wheels.

No one expected that German toy company Märklin, which was better known for its dollhouse accessories and toy kitchens, would lead the next revolution in toy trains, but Märklin did just that in 1891 at the Leipzig Toy Fair, where the company debuted the first toy railway system.

Along with its windup tinplate trains, Märklin’s introduced the concept of “gauges” to standardize model-train measurements—these gauges are still used today. Märklin’s trains ca...

Märklin’s other major innovation was the concept of interchangeable tracks that incorporated “turnouts” (where two tracks diverge to become four) and crossings (where two pairs of tracks intersect). Parents could buy additional sections of tracks for their children to make their train layouts longer and longer, so soon Märklin was producing stations, tunnels, bridges, and figurines to line these routes. Thus, the world of miniature train sets was born.

The next major breakthrough, circa 1897, was the introduction of trains that ran on alternating currents of electricity. Carlisle & Finch is usually credited with introducing electric tinplate trains to the U.S. market, while Märklin is often cited as the company that developed the technology in Europe. It wasn’t long before German manufacturers like Karl Bub and Bing, as well as U.S. companies like American Flyer, Ives, Lionel, and Marx, got on board and started producing their own lines of electric toy trains, usually out of tinplate or stamped steel. German toy manufacturer Hans Biller bucked this technology trend by producing windup trains and then battery-powered models.

Following the tradition of American toy trains, Lionel made big, sturdy, stylized toy trains in a non-standard gauge, 2 1/8 inches, which it cleverly branded as “Standard.” Before long, it was. In fact, by the 1920s, Standard gauge Lionel products dominated the tinplate toy train market in the U.S.

By the ’20s and ’30s, adults began to admit to their fascination with toy trains. German and U.S. companies egged one another on to introduce more and more innovations for their miniature trains, including safer electrical systems and even smaller gauges like the HO scale, which finally led to the production of genuine model trains.

This growing hobby all but came to a halt during World War II, when raw materials like tin and toy factories were devoted to the war effort. Many of the prewar toy trains by Lionel and other top companies were melted down in scrap-metal drives, assuring their scarcity today. After the war, some firms returned to making tinplate toy trains, but only briefly. Most postwar manufacturers, including Lionel, responding to the puiblic's desire for more realistic model trains, made their locomotives out of diecast metal and, later, plastic.

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