For over 50 years, Brooklyn native Jerry Greene and his wife Nina compiled one of the most remarkable collections of toys and trains ever assembled. In 2014, New-York Historical acquired a portion of their Jerni Collection with generous support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, Richard Gilder, and an anonymous donor. This February marks yet another stop in Jerni’s journey: the conclusion of a three-year project to catalog New-York Historical’s Collection.
Funded through the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS,) the goal of the project was to unpack, measure, assemble, group, and photograph all 9,077 trains, stations, figures, and other accessories. Highlights from the Collection have been displayed in our annual Holiday Express exhibition since 2014, including this year’s Busytown-themed displays featuring Richard Scarry’s characters.
So, as the 2019-2020 Holiday Express comes to its last stop on Feb. 23, we thought we’d share some highlights and discoveries from the cataloging team.
The biggest (and coolest?) station
Among the cataloging project’s most anticipated opportunities: the chance to an up-close look at the massive 1904 station from Märklin, a Nuremberg-based firm. Measuring nearly four feet long, it’s the largest single station the company ever produced, and the example in the Jerni Collection is a rare variant that features a set of doors in the toy’s central section.
Lifting the roof of the station reveals a sectioned interior that functioned much like a train-themed dollhouse.
It also revealed something about how children of a century ago might have played with it. Dirty and soot-stained, the upper reaches of the walls and ledges retain the physical evidence of nighttime games of pretend when kids lit kerosene lamps or placed candles in the station to illuminate it. Partitioned rooms provided the necessary backdrop to play out any number of imagined narratives with perfectly scaled figures of passengers who could be arranged buying tickets or lingering in the station’s waiting area, which is comfortably appointed with chairs and a settee.
Needless to say, academic objectivity was preserved at all times while assembling these vignettes. We take our studies into playtime very seriously at New-York Historical.
The smallest misfit toy
Among the more curious discoveries in the collection: a small, plastic, red bird with murky origins that probably dates to the 1950s. It joins a larger pool of misfit toys that—one way or another—got on the wrong train and ended up in the Collection. Maybe it was a wayward game piece or a forgotten cereal-box prize? We may never know. Nonetheless, it still has historical lessons to teach us and is a small reminder of how much plastics changed the toy industry: After World War II, there was an explosion of injection-molded plastic that signaled the decline of metal-toy production.
Most unique motor
For 150 years, toy makers have obsessed over new and unique ways to make toy trains go. Among the most creative solutions was an example of a hot-air engine discovered in this locomotive created by Ernst Plank of Nuremberg, Germany. While similar to a steam engine—which uses pressure generated from heated water vapor—Plank’s patented hot-air engine used the expansion of heated air to drive a small piston. Little is known about Plank’s decision to explore this method, but it did omit the need for a heavy water boiler, making the toy lighter and possibly faster than the competition. Watch a similar hot-air toy trolley in action below:
Curiously, the era of the hot-air engine was short-lived, and this is one of only two toy locomotives known to have incorporated it. Collected by Jerry Greene’s father in Brooklyn during the 1950s, it is also one of the earliest additions to the Jerni Collection.
The largest ship in the fleet
The Jerni Collection is not all trains. It’s also got an impressive collection of seagoing vessels, and Gebrüder Bing’s massive clockwork ocean liner displaces more toy tonnage than any of the other boats in the Jerni ship fleet. This ship, the largest the firm produced at 42 inches, is painted in the livery of the United States Line’s flagship Leviathan.
Measuring more than 800 feet long, the real Leviathan was originally built in Germany and called Vaterland. Launched in 1913 during the international race to dominate transatlantic trade, the crack liner was designed to compete with Cunard’s Mauritania and White Star’s ill-fated Titanic. It had the misfortune of being docked in Hoboken, New Jersey, when World War I was declared a year later. Impounded by the United States, the ship was renamed Leviathan by President Woodrow Wilson’s wife Edith and repurposed as a troop carrier. After the war, the United States kept Leviathan as compensation for wartime losses. Unperturbed, Bing, a German company, made this big toy for U.S. families and kept its American name. Curiously, the toy ship retains the flag of the German Mercantile Fleet, which was either a factory-floor mistake or a subtle reminder of the ship’s true heritage. Whatever the reason, it’s just one more of the countless hidden treasures and stories in the Jerni Collection.
Intrigued by what we found? Come see more Jerni highlights while you still can in Holiday Express: All Aboard to Richard Scarry’s Busytown before it closes on Feb. 23.
Written by Mike Thornton, associate curator of material culture at the New-York Historical Society