Many faithful to the hobby of model railroading trace its origin to the early toy train market that originated in England and Germany in the 1870s but later took hold in the US in the 1890s. That movement certainly influenced the popular market we know today but that is only part of the story. Miniature railroad equipment in the US dated back far earlier and was positioned to support the railroad industry and commercial markets.
Accurate, miniature representations of locomotives, rolling stock and railroad accessories prevailed in the US as early as the 1840s. The earliest miniatures were created as part of the process for applying for a patent and later, for locomotive and car builders and general railroad manufacturers to have mobile examples of their products demonstrate. Miniatures fit the bill since they were conveniently ready for transport. It was the age well before teleconferencing and zoom meetings when a sales representative had to call on customers personally, having miniature displays for those visits was a critical part of those presentations. Larger class-1 railroads found that having apprentices build miniature locomotives and cars to refine machining skills and demonstrate the workings of a steam locomotive was a valuable training tool. Railroads including the Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York Central, Lehigh Valley, Reading Lines, Milwaukee Road and Santa Fe fielded many fine examples of shop-built live steam models and prototype rolling stock that were the products of aspiring apprentices.
The general fascination with miniature creations historically captivated the masses. Soon the railroads and commercial suppliers realized that these miniature models used in the trade had enormous value as public relations tools. Beginning in the 1880s miniature locomotives were bult by specialized craftsmen for Expositions, Fairs and as Parade Floats. Amusement parks across the land began adding small live steam railroads to their assortment of rides and attractions. Soon a number of manufacturers catered to that market including the Cagney Bros, Ottawa Live Steam and Industrial Railway & Locomotive Works, Inc In the 1890s the worlds of professional, display and demonstration models tepidly co-mingled with the evolving toy train market. Two early manufacturers that catered to both the toy and industrial display markets were Bassett-Lowke LTD in England and Boucher in the US. The latter firm was primarily a supplier of industrial display models and only dabbled in the very high end of the toy market.
Toys gradually evolved to slightly reflect prototype locomotives and cars more accurately but still a wide gap between that market and the more realistic industrial models remained, both in detail and cost. The typical Boucher realistically detailed “toy” live-steam 4-6-2 Pacific locomotive of 1924 set a family back $275, just $10 over the price of the base Ford Model T runabout ($265). Clearly realistically detailed miniature railroad equipment was well beyond what families and individual enthusiasts could rationally justify. The toy and scale world of trains would be completely redefined in the wildly prosperous times of the late 1920s. To understand the meeting of the commercial and toy train markets more fully, Part 2 will trace the evolution in toy train markets to that point.
We hope you find interest in this fascinating journey and that it deepens the collective appreciation for the heritage of model railroading. The contemporary model railroader is blessed with the widest range of quality models ever in this long and creditable history of the hobby. We take pride with constant responsibility to bring you the best of that market, at competitive prices facilitated by a dedicated staff always willing and ready to serve you. If you elect to add to your operating railroad or display, we guarantee that our current selection has something that will enhance your model railroad journey to that region. Steam, diesel and all classes of passenger rolling stock, all enhanced with our Rewards Program and for this week only, take an extra 10% off sitewide with promo code MISSION10
*Promotion valid May 2nd through May 6th, 2022. Discount excludes select new release Athearn and Broadway Limited products and all Lionel products
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