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    

Ives "o" Gauge 131 Tin Lithographed Baggage Car, Circa 1910, All Original-nice!Lionel Prewar # 184 Tin Litho Bungalow O Gauge - Nice! No Reserve (dakotapaul)Prewar Lionel No. 126 Tin Litho Red Crackle Station No Reserve (dakotapaul)Karl Bub Nurnberg "kbn" "o" Gauge 0-35 Tin Lithographed Clockwork Loco & TenderDisney Mickey Mouse Meteor Tin Wind Up Train SetMarx Tin Parts For Train Depot Gas Pump Warning Drive Slowly Vintage Tinplate Clockwork Hornby O Gauge Type 50 Tank Locomotive.Lionel Prewar 184 Bungalow Tin Litho HouseIves "o" Gauge 129 & 131 Tin Litho Passenger Cars, Circa 1909, Need Lots Of HelpMth Tinplate Traditions #192 Villa Set Nib 10-4072Tinplate 1/4" O Scale Basset-lowke Lms #300 0-4-0 Live-steamer As-is No ReserveLionel Standard Gauge Tinplate Engine 318, Original Paint, Was Re-wheeled, RunsBing "o" Gauge Nynh&h Box Car, Tin Lithographed-all Original-gorgeous-circa 1902Set Of Three Original Pre-war Lionel 0/027 Gauge Tinplate Passenger CarsIves "o" Gauge No. 124 Tin Lithographed Merchants Despatch Reefer Car-1920'sVintage Bing German Tin Lithographed Box Car Old Dutch Cleanser O GaugeIves "o" Gauge 129 & 130 Tin Lithographed Passenger Cars, Circa 1909, Need HelpVintage 50's Lionel Tin Litho Train SetVintage Bing German Tin Railroad Timetable Destination Board3 Rare Mth Tinplate Prototype Standard Gauge Blue Comet Car Set 10-1157Vintage Tinplate O Gauge Electric Locomotive + Hornby Tender, Spares / Repair.Marx 21 Santa Fe Diesel Loco Tin Litho 1950 O-gauge Powered Dummy Engine CaboosePrewar American Flyer Tin Litho Cattle Car O-gauge 1919-1935 Prewar Lionel Lines 511 Standard Gauge Lumber Car Vintage Tinplate Old Train Marx Mercury New York Central Tinplate Tin Litho Passenger Cars Union Pacific Vintage Tinplate Hornby O Gauge Sr Cattle Truck.Prewar American Flyer 1111 I.c.r.r. Tin Litho Caboose O-gauge 1919-1935 Lot Of 9 Marx Tin Plate Train Set Cars 554, 556, 553, 548, Nyc Tenders Tank Ives "o" Gauge 131 Tin Lithographed Baggage Car, Circa 1920's.2-1920s American Flyer O Gauge 1107 Coach + 1108 Baggage Tin Litho CarsO €Hill Climber Tin Train Coal Tender Vintage Late 1800 To Early 1900sSet Of Five Vintage Marx 027 Gauge Tinplate 8 Wheel Tank CarsSet Of Six Vintage Marx Tinplate 027 Gauge Eight Wheel Freight CarsVintage Tinplate Jep O Gauge Locomotive Body + Tender, France €Vintage American Flyer Railroad Station Tin Building Plainville Lot Gilbert SignIves Tin Litho Transition Era Train Car Lot 1679 1680 1682 All Exc No ReserveThree Tin Plate Girder Bridges Similar To American Flyer No. 581 Girder BridgesPrewar Lionel 76 Warning Bell Shack Old Tinplate Toy Train Vintage Standard GaugMarklin 456 Signal House Tin Plate Early 1950's Free Shipping With Buy It Now!!!Marx 5 Piece Tin Wind Up Train Set With Tunnel Plastic Men Hand Ruck And Bench Mth Tinplate Traditions Ives #1868 Villa NibMarx Diecast 666 Locomotive Train Engine & Prr Tin TenderLionel Tinplate Freight/pass Cars - 1690, 1691, 1679, 1680, 1682 (2)Lionel Post War Pennsylvania N5 Caboose # 2457-tinplate-477618 Eastern Division.Fandor Made In Germany "o" Gauge Tin Lithographed Tank Car, Circa 1920'sMarx Tin Plate Hopper Lot 241708, 738701, 28500Marx Electric Steam Freight Set 6" Tin Litho Vg+ 1940s-50s Era1930's J Chein Tin Litho Mars Union Pacific Special Cargo Boxed Friction TrainIves "o" Gauge No. 128 Tin Lithographed Gondola Car, Circa Early 1900's.American Flyer Lines Tin Plate Pre War O Gauge Tank Car Boxcar & CabooseMth Tin Villa LnAmerican Flyer 3210 Tinplate Green Tank Car Prewar O-gaugeGargraves O Gauge Phantom Tinplate Sectional Track 8 Pcs O Scale Train Railroad Marx 2 Piece Tin New York Central Line!Hafner Glen Ellyn Passenger Train Station ~ Great Condition ! Lithographed Tin Lionel No 512 Tin Plate Gondola Pre War 3 Cars 10 Pieces Of TrackVintage Tinplate Hornby O Gauge Ne Rail No. 50 Goods Brake Van.Marx Tin Plate Train Car - 0 Gauge Black Flat Log Car NrLot Refurb Lionel Locomotive W/ Worn Tonka Vw Bug And Tin Litho Toy - Needs Work