How Trains Got From The Rails To Our Toy Chests

Bing Post Office, 1907. Carette Post Office, ca. 1900-1915. Märklin Post Office, ca. 1900. Bing O-gauge Toy Trains, ca. 1900. From the Collection of Jerry and Nina Greene

Every child in America has probably played with a toy train at some point. But why do toy trains hold such sway over our imaginations? Miniature trains were first created as models to accompany proposals for new rail systems as the world entered the industrial revolution. As trains became more and more common, so did these models, which started being produced for the toy market.

Nuremberg, Germany firm Märklin became the first company to produce a complete toy train system, including engines and cars, sectional track, and multiple accessories large and small. Originally these trains were operated by clockwork (wind-up) or were steam powered with small spirit lamps—by the late 1890s electricity began to be added. Märklin’s most famous accessories were their  150-plus model train stations, whose great real-life counterparts had become icons of progress for the cities in which they were located.

Jerry and Nina Greene’s Jerni Collection is the largest private collection of toys and trains in the world. Assembled over fifty years, the 35,000 piece collection features  primarily European items built from 1850 to 1940, including all of Märklin’s stations, and numerous pieces from other firms such as Gebrüder Bing, Ernst Plank, George Carette, and Rock & Graner. The collection items have a  historical significance as well. “Many of the real buildings and bridges that you see represented here in scale model were destroyed in battle, but the toys survived both world wars,” Jerry Green has noted. “For me, these wonderful objects are a part of history.”

Selections from the Jerni Collection will be exhibited at the New-York Historical Society starting November 23, including the only know example of Märklin’s first model elevated station. Did you play with toy trains as a child? Do you still have any? Let us know in the comment section!

Märklin Train Station, 1898. From the Collection of Jerry and Nina Greene


  1. Gerry Bagdziunas says

    I look forward to seeing these beautiful Marklin toys!
    Trains have remained a part of my Christmas celebrations throughout my life.
    I received my first train in 1956. It was in fact a fully landscaped 6′ by 5′ entire Lionel display layout with diesel freight train which my immigrant father must have purchased from the local toy store ! I can’t to this day understand how he was able to afford it. It stayed in my grandparents bedroom for two weeks until the Christmas season had passed. Apartment living was not conducive to toy train displays staying up too long.
    A vintage Lionel and Marklin train has run around my Christmas tree through the ever expanding Department 56 Village for the past twenty five years. Hopefully my daughter will keep this tradition alive! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *