The Year Round Collectible - Electric Toy Trains

The Year Round Collectible - Electric Toy Trains

Everyone loves trivia questions. Here are two with answers that might shock you. What was the first consumer product manufactured at the conclusion of World War II? Second what was the consumer product that boys spent their Christmas money on in the late 1940’s and into the early 1960’s?

Electric toy trains were the first consumer product to begin to appear on store shelves just in time for the first postwar Christmas in 1945. With metal rationed during World War II the only trains that appeared on the market from 1942-45 was a paper one manufactured by the Lionel Company of Irvington, New Jersey. During World War II the Lionel Company had been involved in manufacturing night vision goggles and other technical equipment for the United States military. Prior to World War II the companies’ main product line were electric trains. The company began at the beginning of the 20th Century in a 2nd story loft in New York City. The company was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen, and would become world famous for its electric train sets, chemistry sets and starting in the 1960’s slot car sets.

That first postwar train set was in reality made up of the last train set that had been manufactured in 1941 prior to the start of the United States entering World War II. In 1945 the company turned out one very crude flat car and added it into the set. Lionel realized that to get the train set into the various department stores, hardware stores would require a major effort. Publicity was needed to let the public know that Lionel trains were back and could be purchased for the Christmas Season.

Lionel put on a major publicity campaign which focused on delivering the first sets to the various cities of the United States by DC-3 aircraft. When the DC-3 landed at the various airports the sets would be off loaded into the hands of the children that had been gathered at the end of the loading ramp. At several airports the first children to receive a brand new Lionel train set were in wheelchairs. A marketing ploy to demonstrate that the Lionel Company was a community company interested in those less fortunate.

Pick up an issue of any magazine from this period and it will be filled with ads for electric train sets. Lionel was not the only company involved in the marketing of trains. The other two major American companies were the Marx Company of New York City, and the A.C. Gilbert Company of New Haven, Connecticut. The Marx Company which was more famous for its various plastic cars, trucks, doll houses, and playsets did make train sets. The Marx sets were tin litho and were colourful, but were low end in quality and variety. Many collectors started their collection by purchasing Marx sets. I had one as a kid, but the only item still remaining is its box. Louis Marx was always concerned about costs and if one takes apart some of the tin litho cars one would find that something else was stamped on the other side. If an item had been double stamped - why throw it out was his philosophy just turn it over and make a train car out of it.

The A.C. Gilbert Company was famous for Erector Sets, but at the end of World War II moved into the manufacture of wonderful train sets. The company advertised in many of the major publications of the day with full page ads. "American Flyer - The World’s Most Realistic Train Set. Real Smoke and Choo-Choo sounds." With advancements that had been made during World War II in technology Lionel and A.C. Gilbert began to put out new types of train cars and accessories. The locomotives made real smoke, there were cattle cars with metal cows that moved up and down into the cars. Ice cars that sent out small blocks of ice cubes, a milk car where the worker picked up and put on to the platform cans of milk. There was a car where the cattle moved from the box car into the pens to await shipment to another destination. One rare fantastic car that was manufactured by the A.C. Gilbert Company is a baggage car. The baggage car stops at the station and when the button is pushed the doors open and an attendant begins to unload the baggage onto the platform.

Each company began to produce more accessories to make a boy’s train layout more realistic. Talking stations which announced the coming and going of each train. In my collection is a Lionel news stand with a man behind the counter, magazines, newspapers and a dog that runs around the fire hydrant. With each passing year the various companies that manufactured electric toy trains attempted to make their product more representative of the "real world".

With the launching of the first man made satellite Sputnik in 1957 the companies moved into the "Space Race". The Lionel Company made trains and cars that were meant to pop, whiz, fly and even cars that exploded. The company made cars that contained missiles, satellites and one of the most valuable is the astronaut car. The Mercury Capsule Launch Car. A flat car contained a rocket which had the famous Mercury Capsule on top. When a remote control switch was pushed the rocket launched off the car and flew into the air. The Mercury Capsule then separates from the rocket and continues skyward until a parachute opens and returns it to the ground. A second rocket was made that has the astronaut being placed inside the rocket and the hatch closed prior to blast-off.

In 1957 The Lionel Company manufactured a pink train set for girls. It was an attempt to bring girls into the world of electric toy trains. The set did not sell very well and the marketing attempt to bring girls into train collecting was discontinued. The pink train set is valuable worth several thousand dollars, but there is a second set which is valuable as well. It seems that when the pink trains were returned to the Lionel Company many were repainted blue and resold the next year as a new set. If one finds one of these sets from 1958 and scratches on the underside pink paint may appear. It is not known how many of the repainted sets were put back onto the market and how many actually sold. If interested for more information, check out a website that pictures and lists the type of locomotive and cars that were included in the girls set.

Now, back to the answer of the second question on how did boys usually spend their Christmas money. It was on electric trains or accessories. Unlike today where electric trains are marketed the year round and train magazines are filled with ads for stores that specialize in electric trains, and accessories. In the early Baby Boom years trains sets only appeared around the Christmas season. When Christmas was over stores would reduce the prices on their train stock by 50% or more. Department stores did not want warehouse space taken up with product that would not be put out for sale for a full ten months. In addition, the stores were not sure if by the next Christmas the items would still be popular. It was the perfect time for kids to purchase "rolling stock" to add to their set.

Since I had a full attic to work with I only put a very small part of my train collection around the Christmas tree. In my attic was a full train layout. My collection includes my father’s Lionel set from the 1930’s, and several of my own Lionel sets, and even one American Flyer set. Many accessories including Plasticville houses. The Bachmann Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, manufactured Plasticville grocery stores, fire houses, police stations, schools, churches, 5&19 cent stores, post office, houses, airports, hospitals, tv stations.

This article has not even scratched the surface of the various electric toy train companies. Others that collectors should search for are the Ives Company, Hornby and the German Company Marklin. The Marklin Company of the 1930’s train sets and accessories are some of the most valuable. In my collection are several of the company catalogues of the 1930’s. One can chart the rise of the Nazi Government through the drawings and photos that appear in the marketing material over that period shortly before the start of World War II. The train catalogues take on a more propaganda tone with Nazi symbols appearing on many items.

One area of collecting connected to electric toy trains are the catalogues that were printed each year by the many companies. Each catalogue featured not just items from pervious years, but the new trains, rolling stock, accessories that would be on the market that year. The catalogues from the 1930’s-1960’s had beautiful paintings of trains, and scenes of the trains passing through the Rocky Mountains, cities, passengers getting on and off the train. The catalogues were tiny travel posters. Older catalogues sell in the range of several hundred dollars.

Electric train collecting is not limited to the Christmas Season. It has become a year long collecting opportunity and in my case I keep my trains up all year. When I have enough time I change some of the scenery to reflect the season of the year.

The major source of information on products, layouts, trains shows are the various train magazines that are on the market.

Sit back and enjoy the ride.

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