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]

HOseeker.net

HOseeker.net

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    

Flyer Hafner Ives Bing Tin Wind Up Engine And Tender Vintage AntiqueVintage Hornby Meccano E2e 0 Gauge Engine Shed Tinplate NrMarx 333 Diecast Steam Locomotive +10 3/16 Scale Tin Freight Cars Lionel TrucksLot Of (4) Lionel Prewar Tinplate 800 Series Freights 811 812 813 814 DakotapaulVintage Bing Tin Twentieth Century Limited Train Car Coach Germany Hand Painted Lionel 610, 610 & 612 Prewar Tinplate Passenger Cars (3)Lionel 248 0-4-0 Tinplate Pwd. Electric Passenger SetLionel 248 0-4-0 Tinplate Pwd. Electric Passenger Set - RestoredLionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Freight Cars (8)Heritage Tin Eight Wheel Marx Train Set With Ancient Tin AccessoriesMarx 3/16 Tin Searchlight CarLionel Prewar No 802 Tinplate Union Stock Lines Cattle No Reserve (dakotapaul)Marklin Passenger Station Depot Vintage Tinplate BuildingLionel Prewar No 800 Tinplate Penn Rr 4862 Boxcar No Reserve (dakotapaul)Lionel O Gauge Prewar 603, 604 Passenger Cars & Ll Tinplate Tender (3)Marx Tin! Three 4 Wheel Work CarsLionel No. 801 Wabash 4890 Tinplate O Gauge Caboose Nr (dakotapaul)American Flyer 558 O Scale Tinplate Pennsylvania Coal Tender Lionel Prewar No 901 Tinplate Lake Shore Gondola No Reserve (dakotapaul)American Flyer O Gauge #643 Hiawatha Locomotive 1936 Pre War TinplateThomas /industries , Tinplate Passenger Coach + Boxed American Flyer O Scale Tinplate Baggage 494 And Passenger 495 CarsLionel Trains Ives 1933 Station Transformer Tin Litho Metal Construction #1017Marklin ? Kibri ? Passenger Station Vintage Tinplate Building Clock Tower BorkenLionel Standard Gauge Pre-war Tinplate No. 515 Sunoco Oil Tank Car Aa 66dLot Of Mth Lines Tinplate Traditions Train Cars W/boxes 3-day Auction Marklin Passenger Station Vintage Tinplate BuildingBoulder Valley Models On30 Tin Chicken Stakebed Railtruck Kit #372 New BachmannMarx Train Tin Trunk For The Glendale DepotOld Ives Toy Train Bridge Span & Ramps Vintage O Gauge Tinplate Accessory MetalMarklin ? Kibri ? Passenger Station Vintage Tinplate BuildingHigh Grade Brick Lionel No 800 Tinplate Penn Rr Boxcar Box Only (dakotapaul)Marx Tin Litho O Gauge Union Station Complete W/ Crossing Gate + Stop Caution11 Marx 4-wheel 6" Tin High Side GondolasLot Of Mth Lines Tinplate Traditions Train CarsLionel Pre-war Set Of 2 Tin Red Bridges 270-old, Used-o Scale3 Passenger & 3 Freight Vintage Marx Tin Litho 4 Wheels, Couplers/rust & Dirt Lionel Pre-war #137 Tinplate Stop Station- Needs Repair/parts - Fair - H11Mth Tinplate Traditions-2820-searchlight Car 10-8050-o Gauge-newLionel Prewar Tinplate Freight Cars, 654 Tank, 653 Hopper, 1679 BoxcarOld 1940's Tin Litho Tank Locomotive Steam Train Engine Vintage Chad Valley Toy Rare "kbn" Tin Train Station House German CollectableMth Tinplate Traditions-2814r-o Gauge-reefer Car-10-8025-newMarklin Ho 50th Anniversary Redo Of The R 700 In The 0050 Set Made In Cast & TinPre-war Dorfan Lines Tinplate Caboose.14 Vtg Small Tin 1950s Antique Post Cereal Railroad Train Signs Wabash Mkt B&o6 Marx Pre War 8-wheel Tin Freight CarsAmerican Flyer Tin Car Parts Group #2 Prewar O-gauge #x8924Vintage Tinplate Tender O Scale Clockwork ? Mississippi ValleyLionel Mth O Gauge Tinplate 710 Orange Passenger Extra Add On Car Mib 11-80021Lionel Prewar 802 Tinplate Union Stock Lines Cattle Box Only (dakotapaul)Marklin ? Kibri ? Passenger Station Depot Vintage Tinplate BuildingLionel Pre-war Set Of 2 Tin Red Bridges 270-old, Used-o ScaleLionel Pre-war Set Of 2 Tin Red Bridges 270Bing ? Tin Tender O Gauge Train Vintage Original Lionel Lines - 517 Freight Car / Caboose - Tin - O Scale - Xx 66dMarklin/bing Tin Litho Hand Cart With Piano CreatLionel Trains Green Brass Gondola Car Prewar 0 Gauge Tinplate Metal Original UsaLionel Pre-war A Transformer Pressed Steel Tunnel & Water Tower Tin Thomas Industries 1950 O Scale Tin Plate Yellow Pioneer 1869 Baggage Car--boxed-