Spanning a century of production, this collection captures the international obsession with railroads at a time when mechanical toys prepared children to live and work in an increasingly industrial world. The New-York Historical Society's Jerni Collection was acquired with generous support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Richard Gilder, and an anonymous donor.
Locomotive (1860-1880) by Unidentified makerNew-York Historical Society
The Jerni Collection chronicles a century of toy train design and experimentation. Toy trains appeared in the 1830s not long after their real-life counterparts. Over the next century their design evolved from simple push toys to sophisticated tin plate models powered by live-steam and electricity.
Around 1835, manufacturers in Great Britain and France began producing finely machined miniature brass steam-powered locomotives. Like train models, these trains were more gentlemen’s curios than toys.
Trains like this example are known as “dribblers” due to the trails of water their steam cylinders dripped on the floor.
Eagle train set (1900-1908) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
Toy trains that ran on track debuted around 1890.
Clockwork (wind-up) locomotives offered an affordable alternative to live-steam or later electrically powered toy trains. A single wind could power this train for two minutes.
Toy passenger trains typically included at least two cars. The eagle decals seen on these Pullman coaches indicate this set was manufactured for export to the United States.
The German toy manufacturer Märklin added cowcatchers to its standard bodies to give them a distinctly American look for export.
5-gauge locomotive (1906-1915) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
Märklin’s 1891 railway system introduced standardized toy train sizes. Standardization allowed cars to be interchangeable and encouraged the development of extensive lines of accessory stations, bridges, and toy signals.
By 1900, toy trains came in three standard gauges based on the width between their wheels.
Märklin’s 5-gauge toy trains were the largest the firm ever created. Produced by special order only, many examples were commissioned by department stores in the United States and Great Britain as window attractions.
Operated by a working steam boiler, this locomotive’s fuel reservoir holds up to a liter of kerosene, more than enough to power it for a few hours.
The Flyer Railroad Train (1884-1905) by Milton BradleyNew-York Historical Society
To compete with Germany, American toy makers produced inexpensive trains. Floor trains made from inexpensive materials like cast iron and wood were popular in the United States throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Massachusetts-based toy maker Milton Bradley applied colorful paper decals as a cost saving measure to suggest details like the bars and rivets on the cow catcher.
For children, a future on the railroad held the promise of action and adventure. Poised confidently at the controls, this engineer affirmed such aspirations.
Trolley (1908-1909) by LionelNew-York Historical Society
Electric toy trains debuted in 1896 and quickly increased in popularity. The first electric toy trains produced in the United States drew inspiration from streetcars.
Robustly constructed from sheet tin, Lionel’s heavy and brightly colored toys looked sturdy and well-made.
Lionel crushed his European competition by introducing a non-standard 2 1/8-inch track width as “Standard gauge,” making rival products incompatible.
Blue Comet locomotive (1929-1932) by BoucherNew-York Historical Society
Prior to 1930, few toy trains modeled real locomotives. A model maker by trade, Horace Boucher closely modeled New Jersey Central’s Atlantic City Express in his highly detailed 1929 Blue Comet.
With an impressive 4-6-2 wheel configuration, long boiler, and signature deep blue livery, Boucher’s Blue Comet captures the essential details true to the real locomotive.
Insistence on authenticity proved costly as few could afford Boucher’s lavish toy line during the Great Depression, but his efforts anticipated the obsession with scale accuracy of today’s model train hobbyists.
Station (1895-1900) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
The Central Station
Toy train stations captured the elegance and daily activity of the world’s grand railroad terminals. Functioning like miniature dollhouses, many examples featured partitioned rooms and could be lit with candles for nighttime play. The Jerni Collection contains one of the most encyclopedic assemblages of these miniature architectural marvels.
Märklin debuted the first toy train stations in 1895. Constructed from sheet tin, they were hand painted with architectural detail and trompe l'oeil effects.
Windows featured glass sheets frosted in a variety of designs to suggest elegant leaded panes.
Known simply as “the Chocolate Station,” this toy featured a working chocolate dispenser, produced by Stollwerck, a Cologne-based chocolate company.
The red chocolate dispenser and grey bell are out of scale to the station. Larger accessories were easier to manipulate with small hands and encouraged imaginative, interactive play with the toy trains, figures, and station.
Onion Dome Station (1904-1908) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
Most toy stations imitated contemporary architectural styles. This exotic style of toy station was exclusive to Märklin. Exported internationally, the toy proved to be one of the firm’s most popular designs.
The whimsical onion dome atop Märklin’s 1904 station drew inspiration from the Orientalist aesthetic.
All of Märklin’s stations were painted by hand prior to World War I. Women and young girls did most of the decoration, some working at home painting the toys in small batches.
Grand station (1904-1912) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
This is Märklin’s largest and most elaborate toy station. Lifting the roof sections reveals a richly detailed interior complete with ticket office, waiting room, and lounges with tables, chairs, and a radiator.
Kerosene lamps lit the station’s exterior for nighttime play.
Only Märklin’s most elaborate toy stations featured working clocks. This station boasts two, one for each side!
Station (1906–1930) by Ives Manufacturing Co.New-York Historical Society
American firms produced less expensive alternatives to German toy stations.
Ives Manufacturing Company of Bridgeport, Connecticut, combined hand painting and lithography to decorate their stations. Fine hand-brushed pin stripes suggest roof tiles, while a lithographed design emulates a brick façade.
Ives likely purchased surplus slag glass from a New England glass company to fill the panes of the station’s elegant canopy.
Large or small, fancy or plain, most American toy stations are named “Grand Central Station,” acknowledging New York City’s busy rail terminal.
Cotton mill (1900-1912) by Gebrüder BingNew-York Historical Society
Accessory buildings, bridges, and figures expanded children’s toy train layouts and opened new possibilities for imaginative play. Modeling real life infrastructure, the Jerni Collection’s toys offer a unique window into industrial society at the dawn of the 20th century.
Toy factories modeled the mechanics of industrial machines. When coupled with a miniature steam engine, a drive belt spun this textile factory’s miniature machines into action.
Once activated, simple mechanical movements mimicked the operation of the loom and spindle wheels.
Exported to the United States, this is the only example of Bing’s toy cotton mill known to exist.
Post office (1906) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
Other toys made play out of services integral to the railroad.
Märklin’s post office includes stables behind the building. Trains carried mail between cities, and prior to World War I, horse teams still helped with delivering it to the final destinations.
This post office also features sorting rooms and a clerk’s office.
Swimming pool (1912-1915) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
Toy pools provided a recreational outlet for miniature figures.
Germany’s physical culture movement may have inspired Märklin’s range of toy swimming pools. This colossal example was their largest.
Märklin’s pool features entrance and exit doors, a changing area, and diving platform, while a chain delineates the entrance into the deep end.
When filled with water, an operating hand pump shower offered a chance to “bathe” toy figures before taking a dip.
Hell Gate Bridge (1928-1934) by LionelNew-York Historical Society
Engineering feats in themselves, bridges inspired many toys. Based in New York, Lionel frequently drew inspiration from the city’s infrastructure. Lionel’s largest toy bridge models New York City’s Hell Gate Bridge, the world’s longest steel arch bridge until 1931.
Toy trains struggled on inclines. Lionel’s bridge rests flat on the ground eliminating the need for angled approach ramps.
Miniature Railroad Figures (1932-1936) by Sold by LionelNew-York Historical Society
Miniature figures personified the daily drama of rail travel. Toy soldier makers produced the majority of toy train figures. Based in England, the J. Hill Co. produced figures for Lionel.
Cast in lead and brightly painted, these figures capture the fashion and action associated with railroad travel during the 1930s.
During the Depression most porters working the railroad were African American. Together they formed some of the nation’s most powerful labor unions prior to World War II.
Commodore Vanderbilt locomotive (1935-1936) by LionelNew-York Historical Society
Golden Age Icons
Many Jerni Collection’s toys model famous trains, ships, and airplanes that in war or peace captured the imagination of children and toymakers alike. Explore some of their stories.
Sleek streamliners captured American imaginations. Aerodynamic streamliners debuted during the Great Depression in an effort to attract paying passengers with a new modern look.
Lionel’s toy models the Commodore Vanderbilt, a Hudson class locomotive that featured a streamlined metal shroud over the train body.
Less expensive and smaller, O-gauge scaled trains like this proved so popular during the Depression that Lionel halted the production of their larger Standard gauge trains in 1939.
"Flying Fort" toy airplane (1942-1945) by Unidentified makerNew-York Historical Society
United States wartime restrictions during World War II revived wooden toy production.
Constructed of wood and fiber board, this toy loosely suggests Boeing’s iconic B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber.
Wood toys enjoyed a revival in the United States during World War II when the military’s need for steel halted the production of metal toys.
These propellers are cut from sheet tin, which continued to be available to consumers after rationing began in 1942.
Zeppelin car (1931-1937) by MärklinNew-York Historical Society
Germany’s Rail Zeppelin promised a faster future on the rails. The Schienenzeppelin or rail zeppelin represents a failed effort to create a high-speed locomotive. Only one was ever built, but toy versions abounded.
Constructed from lightweight aluminum, the propeller driven locomotive set a land speed record of 143 miles per hour.
The massive whirling propeller however was deemed too dangerous for use in crowded rail stations.
Leviathan toy ocean liner (1920-1927) by Gebrüder BingNew-York Historical Society
Germany’s mightiest ship became Bing’s largest toy boat. Painted as the United States Line’s flagship Leviathan, the liner was originally built in Germany as the Vaterland in a bid to dominate the transatlantic trade.
Bing’s clock toy was powered by a clockwork mechanism. A single wind could propel the toy ship for up to 40 minutes.
Impounded by the United States during World War I, the Leviathan was converted into a troop carrier. In 1918, U.S. Army soldiers travelling to European battlefronts onboard carried the Spanish Flu to France.
Curated by Mike Thornton, Associate Curator of Material Culture
New-York Historical Society
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The New-York Historical Society's Jerni Collection was acquired with generous support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Richard Gilder, and an anonymous donor.
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Cataloging and digitization of the Jerni Collection was generously supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.