We’re now in the final days of our beloved seasonal exhibition, Holiday Express—come learn about toys and trains from a bygone era before the show closes on Sunday, February 28.
Though the golden age of the locomotive has long since come to pass, the train set has endured as a popular toy. Toys reflect culture and offer us insight into the lives of both kids and adults at the time of their creation. While we often think of the them as strictly for the young, the intricate designs, bold colors, and stunning craftsmanship in the models included here reveal the art in toy-making.
Though produced by the German Märklin company, the Pennsylvania Station toy showcases the station as a symbol of Gotham, itself. Penn Station designers McKim, Mead, & White’s monumental structure conjured up Europe’s then-contemporary giant glass and metal rail stations, as well as architecture from ancient Rome. Built to bring Pennsylvania Railroad Company passengers to and from Manhattan without ferries, electrified tunnels held back the waters of the Hudson and East Rivers. Its controversial demolition in 1966 triggered the creation of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission to save historically important city structures.
The Cotton Loom
The Bing’s Cotton Mill miniature accurately modeled the complex mechanics behind steam-powered industrial machines for children and included a functional engine.
By the early 20th century, machinery had—on a mass scale—replaced skilled, but slower handwork. With this shift, the factory supplanted the home as a space of work during the Industrial Revolution. Interestingly, no workers figurines were included with the toy mill. At the time, many workers were children until new laws, passed in the 1910s, effectively limited child labor. The well-to-do youths whose parents could afford to buy this loom would simply learn about the toy’s mechanical principles and not about the people who operated them.
The Marklin Café
This enviable toy is Märklin’s Café Station, which flaunts the company’s renowned attention to detail. Though Märklin mass-produced its toys, quality was by no means sacrificed. All intricate designs were hand painted. In addition to a clock and weathervane, the station’s roof has tiny insulators for telegraph current. The roof is also removable and inside, you’d find a fully-furnished interior decorated with candleholders ready to be lit. Märklin’s travelers—like the real ones of the day—could enjoy a full meal before boarding, buy the era’s fast food from rolling buffets and food carts, or supper in their train’s dining car.
The Empire State Building
Does this building look familiar? It should: it’s the Empire State Building! This skyscraper was the largest building in any Marx playset, and understandably so. The Art Deco masterpiece stood as the world’s tallest structure from its opening in 1931 until 1971, when the World Trade Center was completed. The New York-born Louis Marx headquartered his company south of the Empire State Building on 34th Street. He sold the skyscraper toy for a hefty $8.95 in 1957, believing that families everywhere would want this symbol of New York and daringly-tall architectural feats.