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.

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    

Large Lot Of Marx Tin-plate Cars + Locomotive Boxcar/tank/caboose/tender/crane/+Marx Train Set #15220 Santa Fe 21 Twin Unit Freight W/ob-tin Litho C.1950 Exc.Hornby O Gauge No2 Signal Cabin - 1950's TinplateLtd Toy Stamp & 1930s Marx Tin Train Set W Nyc Commodore Vanderbilt Loco & TendOriginal Marx 027 Gauge #3000 Canadian Pacific 0-4-2 Tinplate Steam EngineAmerican Flyer O-scale Tin Plate #9900 Burlington Zephyr SetLionel O-gauge Prewar Tinplate1692 Passenger & 1693 Observation Cars SetMarklin 19410 Prewar O Gauge Tinplate Passenger Coach CarHornby Series(o Gauge) Tin Plate Metal Trunk & Lid(railway Passenger Luggage)vgcMarx Yellow 6" Tinplate B&le Bessemer Boxcar!Vintage O Scale Model Railroads Trains Tin Train Station BuildingHornby Tinplate Lnwr Gunpowder Van 1920sVintage Lionel Standard Gauge Tin Toy No. 515 Pre War Original Box Collectible Marklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 17550 Post-mail Car Ca70Vintage Marklin #418/1 Tin Train Station (bahnhoff Friedrichshafen)Original Marx 027 Gauge 2-4-0 Tinplate Steam EngineMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 18860 Red Schlafwagen-mitropa Ca75Prewar German Fandor O Gauge Lithographed Tin Passenger Train StationLionel Junior Prewar Tinplate Electric LocoMarklin 17910 Prewar O Gauge Tinplate BoxcarVintage Tinplate Fandor Passenger Set Germany Original Wooden BoxVintage O Scale Model Railroads Trains Tin Passenger PlatformOld Tin Train Cars Wi O Gauge Engine All For Parts Ives Ect Rust & RustMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 18860 Green 2&3 Passenger Car Ca76Hornby (o Gauge) Tin Plate Metal Case"london"& Lid(railway Passenger Luggage)vgcMarklin 18520 Prewar O Gauge Tinplate Log CarMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 1791 Deutsche Reichsbahn Box Car Ca80American Flyer O Gauge Tinplate 2-4-0 Steam Locomotive With TenderEarly 1901 Prewar German O & Std. Gauge Detailed Tin Painted Railroad TunnelBing American Outline Tinplate Wind-up Locomotive Cast Iron No ReserveMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No.1889/18890 Baggage Car Ca63Vintage Lionel Standard Gauge Tin Toy No. 514 Pre War Original Box Collectible Set Of Three Original Lionel O Gauge Tinplate Freight CarsSet Of Two Original Lionel O Gauge Tinplate Freight Cars To Restore1930's Tin Greyhound Bus TerminalMarx 0/027 Gauge Pre-war Tinplate Union Pacific M100000 Diesel Engine Body Vintage Lionel Standard Gauge Tin Toy No. 511 Pre War Original Box Collectible Lionel Four (4) Tin Plate Prewar 800 Series Box CarsBing Track Bumper 2 Rail Tin Germany O-gauge AccessoryVintage Tinplate Train Hafner Trains Marklin 18510 Prewar O Gauge Tinplate Freight CarMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 17520 Mitropa Speisewagen Ca69Marklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 1886 Mitropa Schlafwagen Ca65Marklin 17720 Prewar O Gauge Tinplate Lumber Wagon Stake CarMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 18510 Deutsche Reichsbahn 1934/1952 Ca81Early Bing Tinplate Ore Car! Nice!Early Bing Tinplate Ore Car! Nice! Second One!Vintage Girard Marx Tin Station - Whistles & Lights - Great ConditionOld Tin German Bing Watch Tower *vintage Germany O Scale Train AccessoriesVintage Kbn Cast Iron W/u Locomotive + 5 A/f Tin Cars-not A Set-as/is-nr-ptsMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No.1752 Dining Car/voiture Restaurant Ca66Marklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No.1852/18520 Stake Car 1934 To 1952 Ca67Vintage Lionel Standard Gauge Tin Toy No. 513 Pre War Original Box Collectible Marx O Scale Train Single Dome Tank Car Niacet Niax 256 Tin Litho Lot Of 9 Marx O-scale Tin Cars + 2 SwitchersVintage American Flyer Tin Pre War LocomotiveVintage Marx Tin Litho Lot Prr Boxcar General Coal Hopper Santa Fe Tanker Lot Mth Pennsylvania Std Gauge Tank Car 10-2112 Tinplate TraditionsMarklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 17270 3rd Class Passenger Car Ca68Marklin O Scale Pre-war Tinplate No. 17520 Mitropa Speisewagen Ca71