We are building a research railroad! In 2017 the New-York Historical Society received a special grant to begin the enormous task of cataloging the Jerni Collection in an effort share its wonders with the greater public. These funds come from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Founded in 1996, IMLS serves as an independent federal agency dedicated to connecting people with information and collections like Jerni.
Our annual Holiday Express exhibition features only 236 objects out of the Jerni Collection’s estimated 11,000 individual toy trains, stations, and accessories. The IMLS grant will help us lift the veil to reveal the collection’s total scope as a special team labors to create individual data records and photographs of each toy. When complete, these records will be accessible online through our collections portal and in a planned virtual exhibition of Jerni highlights.
Behind the scenes in one of the New-York Historical Society’s state-of-the-art storage facilities, Chelsea Wright and Marietta Klase chug steadily ahead one object at a time. Opening box after box of carefully wrapped toys, day after day, is slightly akin to a holiday wish come true. Fun as it, the process is done with great care and surgical patience. Layers of acid-free tissue and plastic surround each toy, disguising its identity. Careful not to snip chain lines, break delicate wires, or scratch the paint, the catalogers cut away the layers.
Once the packaging is shed, careful measurements are taken in order to develop future exhibition designs and a proper fit within the footprint of the Holiday Express terrain. With the aid of a miniature library of out-of-print toy books and re-printed trade catalogs, Marietta and Chelsea attempt to identify the maker of each toy and the year it was produced. The library’s scope goes back well into the 1890s, but even then there are some toys that are simply too old or too unusual that their origins remain a mystery. (At least for now!)
Cataloging requires careful word craft and in era when we can “Google” anything, choosing the right keywords can open or close doors. The team must anticipate this and describe each toy’s general characteristics and distinguishing features. The language must be accessible to general portal browsers, but nuanced enough to enable aficionados to zero in on rare makes and models—or at least that’s the goal. And though the team could collectively hold their own as “train experts,” there will always be something new to learn.
Assembled over 50 years in secret, the Jerni Collection was viewed by only a handful of people until it was unveiled at Sotheby’s in 2012. In bringing the collection to light, in recording its details, and in illustrating its scope and scale at an individual level, the New York Historical Society will soon take its place as a research destination for toy trains. The Museum hope’s that this encyclopedic collection will add to an international dialogue about toys, their production, childhood, and our enduring fascination with trains.
—Written by Mike Thornton, Associate Curator of Material Culture