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    

Bing For Bassett Lowke Clockwork Tin Plate Lms 513 Precursor Locomotive O GaugePre-war Lionel No.115 Lionel City Passenger Illuminated Station Tin Building ToyVintage Exley Tinplate Lms O Gauge No Carriage Coach No ReserveTin Old Girard Marx The Joy Line Railroad Train Set O Scale Wind Up Toy Cars Lionel No.438 Lighted Signal Tin Tower 11 1/2" Tall PrewarCollection Of 6 Vintage Bassett Lowke Tinplate O Gauge Lms Wagons Rolling Stock Lionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Passenger Cars: 600, 601 & 602 (3):) 1960's Marx Tin Litho Mar Lines Disney Windup Train4pc Pre-war 1928 American Flyer Tin-litho O-gauge Train Set+/tracks +transformerLionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Passenger Cars: 603, 603 & 604 - RestoredLionel Prewar O Gauge Tinplate Freight Cars: 3859, 820 & 817 (3)/boxWyandotte Hafner Lithographed Tin Wind-up Train Set Ln Mint (dakotapaul)Lionel 263e Blue Tinplate Steam Loco/tender - RestoredLionel 515 Standard Gauge Sunoco Tank Car & 512 Tinplate Gondola (2)Old Tin Lionel #438 Signal Tower *vintage O Scale Toy Train BuildingLionel 514r Lionel Lines Ivory & Peacock Tinplate Reefer CarLionel 248 0-4-0 Tinplate Pwd. Electric Passenger SetAmerican Flyer Tin Lighted Building With Ladder 7.5" High Lionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Blue Passenger Cars: 613, 614 & 615 (3)Lionel Tinplate Green Pullman Cars (3)Lionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Lithograph Passenger Cars: 1690, 1690 & 1691 (3)Bing, Pre-war, 1920's, Station, O-gauge, Tinplate, LithograghedPre-war Lionel Rare No. 122 Waiting Room Pass Station Tin 13" Large Building ToyPride Lines Very Rare #184 Bungalow..tin Lithographed 1980...factory NewLionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Freight Cars: 807, 805, 806, 902 (4)Vintage Hornby - O Gauge - Clockwork Tinplate Locomotive & 2 Pullman CarriagesMarklin Super Nice 366 Crane - Clean - All Metal 65 Yr. Old Cast Boom Tin Base2 Vintage Marklin Tinplate O Gauge Wagons Rolling Stock Trucks No ReserveMarx Line-mar O Tin Red Truck Tractor For Flat Car Load - Made In JapanLionel Pre-war No 184-1 Lithographed Tin Bungalow, Lighted BuildingMth 10-4020 Standard Gauge 84" Tinplate Wide Radius Curve Track (22)7 Vintage Hornby Meccano Tinplate Oo Gauge Wagons Rolling Stock Trucks No Res"1000/rico"(like Hornby O Gauge) Clockwork 0-4-0 Tin Plate Locomotive & Tender1934 Pre-war Tin Litho Lionel 250 Toy Train Set Low Hours - Nice Locomotive!Mth 11-90053 Std. Gauge Tinplate #43 Wind-up Runabout Boat NibOld Tin Lionel 126 Station *vintage O Scale Model Train Building ToyVintage Louis Marx 2069 Tin Girard Whistling Station O Scale BMarklin 4066 Ho Sbb Cff Tin Swiss Rr Passenger Coach 1968 Boxed W Germany2 Vintage French Tin Litho Building's By Jep 1940's? O GaugeAmerican Flyer Pre War Wind Up Cast Iron # 10 Loco/engine & Tin Tender O GaugeMarx Tinplate Baltimore & Ohio Diesel Locomotive #62Bing Tinplate Hand-operated Single Bell Rr Crossing Signal - C6 - Very GoodLionel 511 Lionel Lines Std Gauge Tinplate FlatcarVintage Marx O Gauge Tin Lithographed Coach Passenger Car St Paul & Pacific 3 Vintage Louis Marx Marlines Bessimer B & Le 90171 Red Tin Train Box CarMarklin 4049 Ho Ns Netherlands Express Coach 2nd Class Tin 1967 Lnib W GermanyLot Of 4 Vintage Hafner Tin Litho Toy Train Cars/ Tender/boxcar/tanker/hopperVintage Pair Of Dorfan Lines No.5402 " Washington " Tin Litho 5 " Passenger CarsLionel Trains O Scale Postwar Model Train Metal Tin Sings For No 156 PlatformVintage Louis Marx 2069 Tin Girard Whistling Station O ScaleLionel O Gauge Prewar Tinplate Tenders: 1689t, 02689w (4)Marklin 4033 Ho Obb Austrian Express Coach 2nd Class Tin 1966 Lnib W GermanyMarx 73410 Tin Nyc Sinclair Boxcar With Barrel Loads Nib!Lot Of 4 Vintage Hafner Tin Litho Toy Train Cars/ Tender/hopper/caboose/completeVtg Tin Model Railroad Train Crossing Sign Gate Stop Folding Arm Mechanical NrMth / Lionel Tinplate Floodlight Tower Set #92 Terra Cotta & GreenMarklin 4087 & 4057 Ho Dsg Tee Speisewagon Diner Tin Passenger Cars Boxed 1969Mth O Scale Tinplate Christmas Express Illuminated Caboose (bst 4-1475)Mth O Scale Tinplate Christmas Express Boxcar (bst 4-1474)Mth O Scale Tinplate Christmas Express Hopper W/coal (bst 4-1476)