In 1832, New York City implemented the first urban streetcar system, which consisted of horses pulling public carriages along designated tracks. Other cities quickly followed suit. The combination of horses and rail technology was adopted because steel or iron tracks limited friction, allowing horse-drawn streetcars to carry a greater number of passengers in all types of weather than streetcars whose wheels had to roll through the mud during much of the year. As with locomotive transit that followed, this early form of urban-trolley service produced a variety of now-collectible ephemera, from timetables and maps to tickets and tokens.

The first machine-powered light-rail systems relied on underground cables to pull vehicles along city streets. Perhaps the world’s most iconic trolleys are the cable cars of San Francisco, which were installed in 1873 to carry travelers up the city’s steep hills. Before electricity was widespread, cable cars were powered from a central facility that used a large steam engine to keep the system’s cables continuously moving. A cable car gripman would latch the trolley onto the cable to set it in motion, and then detach the car to brake it.

By the late 1880s, electric generators had improved enough to power streetcar lines without the use of cables or horses; in 1888, the first electric railway debuted in Richmond, Virginia. Soon cities across the country replaced their horse-drawn systems with electric trolleys, so nicknamed for the “trawlers” used to connect cars to their electrical power sources.

These new railways spurred major suburban growth, altering the landscape of American cities. Interurban lines were designated to run between these closely spaced communities, further separating the residential and commercial spheres by allowing commuters to live farther from work. Streetcars quickly became an integral part of modern life, often appearing in photographs and postcards of cityscapes during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In 1929, the Presidents’ Conference Committee (PCC) was created to investigate issues of urban transportation, eventually developing the improved PCC car. Many PCC streetcars are still in use by rail companies today, as its upgraded design allowed vehicles to brake and accelerate more quickly, while also offering passengers a smoother ride.

With the spread of automobiles during the '20s and '30s, streetcar lines were viewed by many municipalities as a hindrance to drivers. National City Lines, a covert venture initiated by General Motors, Firestone Tires, and Standard Oil, explicitly lobbied cities to halt rail service and simultaneously purchased smaller rail systems to dismantle their tramways. The company was ultimately taken to court and found guilty of a conspiracy to eliminate the U.S. streetcar system, but by the time of the verdict in 1949, most of America’s light-rail infrastructure had already been destroyed.

In addition to objects directly connected with light-rail service, from operator hats and badges to streetcar parts and signs, collectors also gravitate to the many miniature trams created by toy companies such as Bing, Corgi, Märklin, and Marx. And major brands like Campbell’s Soup and Pepsi also produced a variety of streetcar-shaped toys to advertise their products.

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Market Street Railway

Market Street Railway

This website is the virtual companion to the entirely functional, outdoor museum of vintage streetcars serving ride… [read review or visit site]

Railroadiana Online

Railroadiana Online

If you've ever wondered how to tell real from fake railroad china, or how brass baggage tags originated, this extre… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Cast Iron Ac Williams Trolley Bank With PeopleOriginal Slide - Milwaukee Electric 972 Trolley Scene At Depot 1950s RbkHornby O Gauge Miniature Tinplate Railway Trolley With 6 Milk ChurnsOriginal Slide - Waterloo Cedar Falls & Northern 100 Trolley Electric Neat 1954Pacific Electric Railway Southern Pacific Redlands California Depot Circa 1922 3022 - Uk London Twickenham C1905-10 King Street Tramway Trolley StoresRppc Tampa Florida, 1914, La Fayette St. Bridge Trolley #16 Baseball MessageLong Island Railroad Electric Suburban Coach #4960 Original Slide Trolley LirrAntique Cast Iron Pulley For Trolley Industrial Steampunk Vtg Lighting PotentialOrig Slide Trolley Tars 1244 Third Ave Railway Kodachrome 1948 New York BronxBus Or Trolley Fare BoxOriginal Slide - Scranton Transit 503 Trolley Electric Street Scene 1950s RbkOriginal Trolley Slide Fddm&s 72-82 Scene;bridge At Boone;9/55 Gray Mount SlideOriginal Slide - Illinois Terminal It 100 Trolley Electric At Alton Il Depot '50Trolley, Car, Parade In Lewistown Pa Mifflin County Pennsylvania Stereoview CardLake Shore Electric Railway Company Timetable--july 1, 1909--tickets-excellent2976 - Uk Cheltenham C1905-10 Upper High Street Tramway Real Photo PostcardOriginal Slide Trolley 850 Nops New Orleans Kodachrome 1964 SceneNorthwestern Pacific Interurban Coach San Anselmo Original Negative Nwp SpNorthwestern Pacific Interurban Train Almonte Original Negative Trolley Tram NwpMilwaukee Electric Railway & Transport Streetcars #980 Original Slide Tmer&tOriginal Slide - Cnsm North Shore 171 Trolley Electric Scene At Station June 59Original Slide - Illinois Terminal It 285 Trolley Electric At Fithian Il 1950sSacramento Northern Interurban Ge Steeplecab Loco #652 Original Negative SnOriginal Slide - Waterloo Cedar Falls & Northern 102 Trolley On Elkrun Bridge 54Ttc Toronto Transit Trolley 35mm-[slide #1746]-1966 Pcc Toastmaster BreadNorth Shore Line Electric Interurban Coach #172 Original Slide Cns&m TramStreet Trolley Signs Publisher Kemlein & Johnson, Manila Philippines PostcardTtc Toronto Transit Trolley Original 35mm-[slide #1753]-1966 Pcc Street Scene Charlottesville Virginia On Man St Trolley Tracks Horse Buggies Antique Pc Y8261Clinton Davenport & Muscatine Interurban Public Timetable Ptt Sept 18, 1937 Cd&mSacramento Northern Interurban Tunnel Eastport Original Negative Trolley Tram SnSacramento Northern Interurban Coach #mw302 Original Negative Trolley Tram SnNorthwestern Pacific Interurban Tunnel Alto Original Negative Trolley Tram NwpTrolley Negative: Vancouver British Columbia Electric 708 Boundary St Wye 1948City Lines Of West Virginia # 228, Dt/de/rr Interurban Combine Orig 616 B&w NegPacific Electric Hollywood Interurban Coach #758 Original Slide PeOriginal Slide - Bc Hydro Bch 2038 Trackless Trolley Bus Fresh Vancouver Bc 1966Montreal Trolley Slide: Mtc Pcc 3508 (original)Everett Washington Photo Post Card, 1909 Street Scene, Trolley, Optical JewelerVintage Ewe Germany Electric Trolley Bus Dark Red Metal For Repair / Parts1020s Flag Pole Holder Off Texas Electric Railway Interurban Trolley Car NrConnecticut Company Electric Interurban #500 Original Slide Trolley TramOriginal Slide Trolley Scranton Transit 107 Kodachrome 1947 PennsylvaniaOriginal Negative Psct Public Service Trolley New Jersey 1940's HobokenOshawa Railway # 401, Steeple Cab Trolley Freight Locomotive Orig 616 B&w NegStafford Springs, Ct Connecticut 1910 Postcard, New Trolley Streetcar BridgeOriginal Lab-made Trolley Photo: New York City Elevated 147 Battery Park 1940Original Lab-made Trolley Photo: New York Third Av Elevated 1617 South Ferry '40Original Lab-made Trolley Photo: Boston Elevated 0141 Causeway St North StationOriginal Trolley Slide Dubrovnik Yugoslavia 21 Scene;august 1969Original Slide - Kcps Kansas City Pcc Trolley On Bridge West Bottoms 1955 RbkToronto Trolley Bus Slide: Ttc 9063 Brill Route 61 (1971 Original)Street Trolley Horse Carts Pub. Kemlein & Johnson, Manila Philippines PostcardOriginal Slide - Cta Chicago 3356 Trolley Electric 115th & St. Lawrence Apr 1951Ttc Toronto Transit Trolley Original 35mm-[slide #1734]-1963 Pcc Subway YardTtc Toronto Transit Trolley Original 35mm-[slide #1743]-1965 Pcc Gas StationTtc Toronto Transit Trolley 35mm-[slide #1758]-1967 Pcc Scene Neon Rocket SignTtc Toronto Transit Trolley Original 35mm-[slide #1740]-1965 Pcc Shell StationExc & Sharp ~1910 Real Photo Postcard, Alaska Northern Trolley & Men Close Up