In the 19th century, the railroad was the Internet of its day, connecting people with one another and moving merchandise and raw materials across great distances at unprecedented speeds. In the United States, trains delivered coal and cotton to markets in peacetime; they positioned heavy artillery for attack during the Civil War. By 1869, the same year the first ships sailed through the Suez Canal, the Transcontinental Railroad opened the West to a nation enthralled by the concept of “Manifest Destiny.” As railroad tycoons laid more and more miles of track throughout the growing nation, increasing numbers of citizens were able to witness the spectacle of a steam-engine locomotive roaring through their once-remote towns. In an age when few people traveled farther than 20 miles from their homes in their entire lifetimes, the effect must have been thrilling.
“Anything that ran on electricity at the turn of the century was absolutely cutting edge.”
Naturally, children were eager to play with pint-size versions of this new technology, and 19th-century toymakers obliged, cranking out model trains in wood, cast iron, and tin. By the first half of the 20th century, millions of little boys dreamed of waking up on Christmas morning to find a model train tooting around the tree—their sisters didn’t figure prominently in this soft-focus scenario, and subsequent attempts to bring little girls into the fold were, well, train wrecks, even for model-train giant Lionel.
In recent decades, selling model trains to children of either gender has been equally challenging, as author and self-described “recovering model railroader” Gerry Souter explained to me recently. He and his wife, Janet, have written a half-dozen or so books on the hobby. “I have breakfast every Tuesday with some friends of mine who run trains,” he says, “and I still have all the kits I built. I love model trains, and I enjoy going to conventions to sell our books.”
Unfortunately, Souter doesn’t see a lot of children at those events. “The average age of a model railroader is 40-plus,” Souter says with a sigh. That may be optimistic: According to a “Wall Street Journal” article published just last year, the average age of the National Model Railroad Association’s 19,000 or so members is 64, up alarmingly from 39 in the mid-1970s.
That’s too bad, because today’s analog model trains have plenty to offer 21st century’s digital kids. Though many trains are sold preassembled, there are still a lot of do-it-yourself kits out there, making them a good fit for those inspired by Maker and DIY culture. In addition, despite the historic image of locomotives belching black smoke everywhere they go, real trains are surprisingly efficient in terms of their energy consumption, making them one of the greenest modes of transportation going. As for train layouts, they can be as traditional or as far-fetched as a child’s imagination will allow, snaking through everything from forests of living dwarf conifers to cityscapes constructed entirely of LEGOs.
Still, it’s tough to sell the idea of model trains to children today for two main reasons. First, nostalgia, as someone once said, ain’t what it used to be. In the case of model trains, the nostalgia of postwar parents for the sights and sounds of the locomotives of their youth was relatively easy to transfer to their Baby Boomer children. The same dynamic, though, is not at work when it comes to Boomers selling the appeal of model trains to their Millennial kids, most of whom don’t have strong feelings one way or the other for the railroads of yesteryear. Besides, Millennials have far more engaging and instantly gratifying toys to play with than a machine that runs slowly around a track, over and over and over again.
This brings us to the second problem with model trains in the 21st century: technology. Trains haven’t “thrilled” us for decades. For most of us, our experience with trains ranges from being packed into a crowded commuter train at rush hour to being stuck behind the wheel of a car at a railroad crossing as miles of groaning gondolas and rattling tanker cars rumble by. For the 21st-century kids stuck in the back seat of that car, trains are noisy, antiquated, and irredeemably boring Goliaths, unable to compete with the nimble, digital Davids they hold in the palms of their hands. Sure, the size of real railroad cars up close is impressive, but have you seen the latest gun skins for CS:GO?
In contrast, real trains are pretty dull, the same old same old. “There’s less product out there for model railroaders than there was back in the 1950s and early ’60s,” Souter says, “when the train themselves were really switching over from steam to diesel. That was a big deal for model railroaders, then and now. Today, most model railroaders are reaching back to that moment in history for their layout themes.” With only a closed universe of steam and diesel locomotives to play with, model railroaders must infuse their inherent love of tinkering with a healthy dose of industrial nostalgia.
That unique confluence of interests is no doubt why model railroading has always been a fairly niche market. “Let’s face it,” says Paul Saffo, who chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University in California’s Silicon Valley, “model railroading is mainly an old-man’s hobby. I’ve always been puzzled by Lionel,” he adds. “I passed 60 a few years ago, but even when I was a little kid, I thought Lionel trains were totally dorky.”
Obviously, ’twas not ever thus, as the Souters explain in The American Toy Train. The story of the world’s once-passionate love affair with trains, as well as their toy analogs, begins in Newcastle, England, site of a coal-mining community known as the Wylam Colliery, where the groundwork for the future popularity of model trains in the United States was laid. There, in 1813, a primitive steam locomotive called Puffing Billy was introduced, hauling coal cars to the nearby River Tyne. Puffing Billy had a top speed of about 5 miles per hour, and it featured an odd-looking, vertically oriented boiler, but it did a good job of hauling coal to market, which helped make the business case for using machines rather than beasts to pull heavy loads.
Another English locomotive, the Stourbridge Lion, was manufactured in 1829 before being exported to the United States for a short-lived run on tracks controlled by the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company. As with Puffing Billy, the Stourbridge Lion was designed to pull coal cars, in this case from the mining districts of eastern Pennsylvania to the Delaware & Hudson Canal. The first fully American-built locomotive, the Tom Thumb, 1830, was also intended to move goods. A year later, another English import called the John Bull, whose boiler had a more conventional, horizontal profile, debuted on tracks owned by the Camden and Amboy Rail Road and Transportation Company. Unusually for the time, the New Jersey-based C&A was formed to move passengers between Camden, Philadelphia, and New York City. A “cowcatcher” was added ahead of the front wheels of the John Bull sometime after its debut, completing the classic silhouette of the 19th-century locomotive.
Thanks to their colorful names, varying configurations, and then-cutting-edge technology, these early steam locomotives captured the imaginations of Americans, including the nation’s children. Toy manufacturers such as Charles M. Crandall and Rufus Bliss quickly capitalized on this interest by creating wooden locomotives, passenger cars, and gondolas that children could pull around the house, raising a happy ruckus from room to room. These “draggers,” as they were known, featured colorful lithographed designs that were glued to their wooden bodies, whose proportions were cartoonish and exaggerated rather than precisely to scale. By the Civil War, draggers were also being made from sheets of stamped tin-plated iron or steel, which were folded into the shapes of locomotives or train cars before being secured at the joints and painted, often with the aid of stencils. Wood or tin, though, these trains were first and foremost toys, meant to spur young imaginations and provide children with hours of open-ended play.
Next, the Souters write, came the “dribblers,” which resembled the draggers in appearance but ran on live steam, just like real trains. “They were called dribblers,” Souter told me, “because their tin construction didn’t permit good sealing, so the water used to make the steam often bubbled out of their boilers and onto floors and rugs. Most engines sported a burning alcohol lamp in the cab, where water from the boiler was heated until it turned into steam. The steam moved the pistons, which were connected to piston rods that turned the wheels. Young engineers were responsible for keeping the boiler full,” he adds. “You didn’t want the thing to run dry from the lamp’s heat. In real locomotives, dry boilers caused explosions that killed dozens. At home, the worst cases were that the dining-room rug would suffer a small blaze, or that an unattended locomotive would melt, its soldered joints literally dripping to the floor.”
Another popular form of propulsion for model trains in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were key-wound springs. “Key-winders worked by tightening coiled springs inside the train,” Souter says. “As the pressure in the spring was released, the train was sent moving across the floor or along a track. Key-wound ‘locos’ in both cast iron and shaped tin existed at the same time as the draggers and dribblers, and were made by at least 50 toymakers. Charles M. Crandall, the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory, and the Weeden Manufacturing Company excelled at tin key-winders, while cast-iron trains were produced by Hubley, Ideal, Harris, Dent, Ives, and others.” Contrary to the way it’s perceived today, cast iron was actually a high-end material for 19th-century toys. “Cast-iron key-wound trains cost between $3.50 and $4.00 apiece,” Souter says. “That was two-to-three days wages for an ordinary working man.”
And then there were electric model trains, which date back as far as 1835. “The earliest electric train was made by Thomas Davenport,” Souter says. “It was a simple gondola car containing a hand-wound electric motor running on a circle of track tethered to several wet-plate batteries in the center. Edward Beggs, offered a trolley-type steam loco with a pole touching an overhead wire that was hooked up to batteries. And a company called Carlisle & Finch bettered that idea by using liquid chromite batteries attached by wires directly to the track.”
In fact, batteries were an essential part of 19th- and early 20th-century electric trains, Souter says, because so few homes at the time had electricity. “Carlisle & Finch offered a train that ran on household current,” he says, “but the power for the electrified tracks had to be spliced from the same direct-current wires that ran an electric light bulb.” Somewhat safer were trains powered by dry chromite batteries, although it took eight of them, “each the size of a small artillery shell,” Souter says, to run just one of C&F’s larger locomotives, like the 21-pound No. 45.
But the craziest, and most perilous, model-train power source of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was electro-chemical, involving glass jars, water, live direct-current electricity hot-wired from a lamp cord, sheets of toxic-to-the-touch lead cut into jar-size rectangles, and sulphuric acid, which had to be poured on top of the water in the lead-filled jars, but never the other way around because water poured into a container of sulphuric acid will bubble, hiss, and splatter in every direction, burning holes in clothing and flesh alike. “It was not recommended for the clumsy boy,” Souter says in his best deadpan.
Better were the dynamos, be they hand-cranked or water-powered. “Little Brother would usually be the Dynamo Man for a model-train session,” Souter says, “cranking until the evening express arrived at the station, or until he blacked out, whichever came first.” The Carlisle & Finch water-powered dynamo was a less labor-intensive power source, since it was simply hooked up to a kitchen faucet to generate 8-to-10 volts of electrical current. “It worked fine until Mom had to make dinner,” Souter says.
Back on the full-scale tracks, real trains were also undergoing technological changes, most significantly in the 1920s and ’30s, when diesel locomotives began to prove their viability as a replacement for coal-powered steam. In general, though, train technology moved at a less-than-locomotive pace. “Railroads have always been reluctant modernizers,” Souter says. “They hung on to old technology as long as possible. How long did they use link-and-pin couplers before they came up with the knuckle coupler?” he asks. “And brakemen spent decades climbing to the tops moving rail cars to manually turn the wheels that closed the brakes on each and every car before Westinghouse’s air brakes were adopted.”
Model trains aped these advances, but what’s more interesting to Souter than the evolution of a given piece of railroad technology was how the hardware was mixed and matched. “Railroads ordered different features for their locomotives according to job requirements, from the water heaters and fireboxes to the coal stokers and oil burners. So, most steam, electric, and diesel-electric locomotives were custom-built. Likewise, toy trains had to be prototypical for the railroads they represented.”
In other words, the differences between, say, a Lionel Blue Comet and an American Flyer Royal Blue was not just the shade of indigo. Rather, these model-train locomotives were faithful to the equipment configurations of the real-world locos run by the New York Central System and Baltimore & Ohio railroads, respectively. Model-railroad enthusiasts applauded this realism, which they valued over the relatively slow pace of technological change in model trains and their life-size sources.
By the middle of the 20th century, railroad tracks were crisscrossing the nation, as much a part of the American landscape as majestic purple mountains and amber waves of grain. Indeed, the ubiquity of the railroad in the mid-20th century is certainly one reason why model trains were as popular as ever in the 1950s and ’60s. But according to Paul Saffo, mid-20th-century adults and children viewed trains of all sizes very differently from their turn-of-the-century counterparts. “In 1900,” Saffo told me, “railroads were only a couple of decades old, in the same way that around 2000, personal computers were relatively new. The Wright brothers hadn’t flown yet in 1900—trains were very futuristic.”
So were model trains. “Anything that ran on electricity at the turn of the century was absolutely cutting edge,” Saffo continues. Indeed, the novelty of electric power helped propel model trains into their “classic period,” which, according to Souter, began in 1923 and continued into the first few years of World War II. This was the era of the aforementioned Blue Comet, as well as Lionel’s brown-and-yellow M-10000, which was patterned after Union Pacific’s Streamliner, the first locomotive fully powered by a diesel-electric engine and an early masterpiece of Streamline Moderne design. The Streamliner, later renamed City of Salina, debuted on February 12, 1934, at the Chicago World’s Fair, with a simultaneous release in O-gauge by Lionel.
Streamline Moderne trains gave model-train manufacturers a sleek new style to emulate, allowing them to expand their repertoire beyond old-fashioned-looking locos like the John Bull. Not surprisingly, though, a change in aesthetics, however appealing, was not enough to keep Lionel from going into receivership in 1934, one of the worst unemployment years of the Great Depression. To dig out of its financial hole, Lionel needed more than just a train with a new look powered by a new technology—it needed a partner who could help introduce Lionel to a whole new audience.
The answer was The Walt Disney Company, which, by 1934, was earning nearly a third of its net profits from licensing deals, perhaps most famously with the Mickey Mouse wristwatch, first made by Ingersoll/Waterbury in 1933. For Lionel, Disney licensed the likenesses of both Minnie and Mickey for a wind-up handcar that ran on Lionel’s O-gauge tracks. Almost overnight, Lionel sold more than a quarter-million of these toys for a buck a piece, earning enough money to help pay off its debts and exit receivership in 1935.
“When toy technology is good enough that it recedes into the background, play has a chance.”
In a way, getting into bed with Disney was not that much different from what Lionel had been doing all along with the railroads, which also licensed their logos and likenesses to the toy-train maker. Beyond making toys with high play value, Lionel’s business strategy had always relied on the appeal of brands, as well as customer interest in both technology and nostalgia.
Over the years, though, the relative importance of each of these business drivers would rise and fall like the arms of a Mickey and Minnie handcar. While technology was probably more prominent at the beginning of the 20th century, nostalgia for the good old days propelled the company through the postwar decades. Not coincidentally, suggests futurist Paul Saffo, that’s also when the transportation dominance of railroads began to wane. “The key event was the Railroad Strike of 1950, which President Harry Truman busted. That was also the moment when airplanes and highways started overtaking the railroad.”
Today, different forces are at work, as seen by the proliferation of Lionel trains styled after fictional works like “Thomas & Friends,” “The Polar Express,” and the “Harry Potter” series. Once again, Disney-style branding appears to be the most important business driver for Lionel, although those particular brands also tap into our collective nostalgia for recent entertainment history.
In addition, advances in how trains move around a track is still of keen interest to model-train enthusiasts. But instead of being preoccupied with draggers and dribblers, steam or diesel, and electro-chemical or water-powered dynamos, today’s model railroaders are fixated on the command of, and control over, the trains chugging around their layouts. For this, Lionel has given them the LCS, or Layout Control System, which allows users to control their trains via just about any WiFi-enabled device. Third-party companies such as BlueRail allow you to control trains on a layout via Bluetooth, from switching tracks to illuminating lights and blowing horns. Lionel is also trying to attract younger customers with its Battle Train game for the iPad, in which players must deliver goods to a virtuous citizenry without being foiled by “a villainous group of bandits, led by the evil Dr. DeRaille.”
Such digital gimmicks aside, the cool thing about model trains, for the child or adult willing to give them a try, is the aforementioned play value. “The best thing about toys,” Paul Saffo agrees, “is that they give us a chance to master our environment and control things. The additional peculiarity of a railroad system is predictability—they only go where you have laid down tracks.”
In this respect, Saffo counterintuitively explains, model trains have a lot in common with drones. “The drones of today are the closest analogs to the model trains of the early 1900s,” he says. “Like model trains, drones arrived in stages. They went from gas-powered, radio-controlled airplanes to electric, battery-powered ones. That was a major improvement, because you didn’t have to deal with the fuel. I’m old enough to remember when those gas-powered airplanes were really popular, and kids would just stand there while the thing went around in circles. To me, it looked like a complete waste of time. I suspect the failure rate of gas-powered airplanes was very high. There must be a term in the collectors’ world about how quickly things end up in closets, right?”
Good question. But Saffo isn’t convinced the same destiny awaits today’s drones. Like the latest technology for model trains, he says, “you can control a drone with your smartphone. They basically fly themselves—you just tell them what to do. So, to me, that’s kind of the emotional equivalent of model trains on a track. You know it’s going to be on the track no matter what you do, so it makes getting to the playing part a lot easier.”
For 19th- and 21st-century kids alike, an essential element of play is the opportunity to be in control, but if the technology associated with their toys is unpredictable, it gets in the way of having fun. Conversely, when toy technology is good enough that it recedes into the background, play has a chance.
Right now, “good enough” means putting the dials and levers needed to run a model-train set or a drone into the palm of a child’s hand via a smartphone, a paradigm that is no longer considered cutting edge. Thus, when it comes to enabling open-ended play, technology succeeds precisely when kids can take it for granted. Just as importantly, when technology is not commonplace, it’s usually too expensive to be practical for the parents paying the bills.
Lionel’s first attempt at this sort of technology, its “Electronic” controller of 1946, illustrates the perils of being too early. “It was a transformer for the locomotive,” Souter says, “with little wireless receivers in all of the cars. From the transformer, you could push buttons to couple or uncouple the locomotive, make it go in reverse, unload the cars behind it, whatever. In total, you could send 10 different instructions by radio, which was pretty sophisticated stuff for its time. In fact, it was too sophisticated, as in too expensive, and by the time the 1947 catalog had come out, it was gone.”
Contrast the “Electronic” with a model train introduced by toymaker Louis Marx at practically the same time. “They put out a line of embossed tin trains,” Souter says. “They were really more toys than realistic models, but they were considerably cheaper than Lionels, and they had great play value. If you wanted a loading crane to go up or down, you had to go over to it and crank the wheel by hand. I had a coal loader when I was a kid,” he adds. “It vibrated like a son of a gun because that’s how it worked. There were buildings, bridges, all sorts of things, and at night, I’d turn off the dining-room lights and run the train with only its lights, the streetlights on the layout, and the lights inside the little buildings turned on. The play value was absolutely wonderful, and we gave those trains a beating. That’s why Marx trains are such a big deal with collectors today,” he adds. “It’s tough to find one that’s still in good shape.”