Bing was a long running German manufacturer of inexpensive tin toys. Like many of its competitors, they were based in Nuremberg, Germany. Founded by two brothers, Adolf and Ignaz Bing, they remained a family owned company from 1863 until their demise in 1933. Originally a maker of kitchen utensils, Bing became a pioneer in what we today call model railroading, creating the standards we today call O gauge and OO scale.
The company produced fine pewter and copper tableware, and later, kitchenware, office equipment, record players, electrical goods, and scientific and educational novelties. But in 1880, they entered the toy market. Their first teddy bears were released in 1907. But it was with tin lithographed toys, especially trains, that Bing would make its mark.
By 1905, Bing was the largest toy company in the world, and Bing’s factory in Nuremberg was the largest toy factory in the world. They were selling products throughout Europe and North America. Bing had 5,000 employees by 1914. By comparison, its upmarket competitor Märklin employed 600.
Bing did not invent what we now call the Nuremberg Style of manufacturing toys. But arguably they perfected it. The formula started with lithographed designs on tin-plated steel sheets. They stamped the design out of the metal, then formed and assembled it into a 3-dimensional object using tabs and slots. The stamping added strength, rigidity, and depth to the design. Lithography added detail and the illusion of additional depth and texture to the flat surfaces. It was easy to change the design for different markets or tastes and the process was inexpensive, not requiring a large number of tools.
This manufacturing method remained in widespread use long after the Bing company had been dissolved, into the 1970s in some parts of the world. Although now obsolete, some companies still produce novelty retro-style toys using this method. In some ways they were the cheap plastic toys of their day, but well-heeled collectors of later decades came to appreciate the artistry.
Bing’s first trains hit the market in the 1880s. When Märklin formalized several standards for track gauges in 1891, Bing adopted them, and added O gauge by 1895. But Bing deviated from Märklin standards with the larger gauge trains. Bing adopted a 2.5-inch gauge as Gauge III, and used Märklin Gauge III, which was three inches, as Bing Gauge IV.
But it was with the smaller gauges that Bing found its lasting influence and legacy. In the early 1920s, Bing introduced a still-smaller gauge, half that of O gauge at 0.625 inch, which it called OO and sold in the UK through Bassett-Lowke. This track gauge became HO scale in the rest of the world, using a scale of 3.5 mm to the foot. Bing used a slightly larger 4mm scale. Bing’s OO gauge at 4 mm scale became a British standard, slightly larger than the most popular standard in the rest of the world, but still the most popular size of train in the UK today.
Bing produced numerous items for export which were then sold either under its own name or for other companies. Bing produced trains styled for the British market for Bassett-Lowke and A. W. Gamage, and it produced trains for the North American market. While Bing certainly sold trains in North America under its own name, there has long been speculation that it OEMed cars for companies like Hafner and American Flyer in their early years as well.
Early success in North America
Bing introduced trains to the U.S. market in 1904, competing head to head with Ives Manufacturing Company of Bridgeport, Conn., who did not surpass Bing in sales for good until 1910. Throughout their histories, the two companies alternated copying one another’s designs. The two companies sometimes even used the same or nearly the same catalog number on their competing products. German labor was cheap and so was shipping to North America, and the tariff on German goods was only 35 percent. This meant Bing could frequently undercut U.S. competitors in price. A Bing set sometimes sold for half the price of a comparable Ives set.
It also helped that the United States had a healthy population of German immigrants, who saw toys from German companies like Bing as superior to those made in the United States. Bing and other German manufacturers dominated the catalogs of U.S. retailers, including Sears.
Until World War I, that is.
World War I and its aftermath
World War I forced Bing out of the export market while the company was at its peak, and the company never fully recovered. In 1916, Ives and the A. C. Gilbert Company formed the Toy Manufacturers Association and lobbied to protect the growing U.S. toy manufacturing industry, which thrived during the war. They succeeded in getting tariffs on German toys to rise from 35 percent to 70 percent.
German wages rose after the war, as did shipping costs and inflation. This created an unfavorable climate for German exports.
The conditions drove Märklin to abandon the U.S. market entirely.
Making matters worse, the death of the company’s founder, Ignaz Bing, in 1918 created a void in leadership.
Bing initially misjudged demand, producing large-gauge sets for the British market when the greatest demand was for O gauge and 1 gauge sets in North America. With its capital tied up in slow-moving inventory, Bing couldn’t produce enough O gauge and 1 gauge to meet demand.
And that was a fleeting window of opportunity. Bing’s designs all predated World War I. Its North American competitors like Lionel and American Flyer were flush with cash from lucrative contracts making materials for the war. They used this money to modernize their designs. Lionel produced advertising that criticized lithography, cast iron, and clockwork motors as cheap, fragile, and old-fashioned. Lionel’s description of those trains was hardly 100% accurate, and the direct target of the advertising was Ives rather than Bing, but it hurt Bing’s comeback as well. Ives was able to modernize its offerings. Bing was not.
When the market evaporated for its 1 gauge trains, it swapped O gauge trucks onto some models, making them look oversized. They produced a Standard Gauge truck to put on other models to compete with Lionel’s high-end Standard gauge, but those models looked undersized.
And 1919 brought an unexpected problem for Bing: Prohibition. The Volstead Act made it illegal to advertise alcoholic beverages, which were already illegal to sell. And that applied to Bing’s lithographed train cars, some of which featured beer. Bing had to black out the word “beer” on those cars before they could get through customs.
The 1921 comeback
Bing caught a break in 1921, after opening new offices in New York. Sears, the largest catalog retailer in the United States, re-introduced Bing’s trains in a big way. The 1921 catalog featured 14 different sets, ranging in price from 98 cents to $7.98. That’s a range of $15 to $125 in 2021 dollars. The top-end set was an electric set with a New York Central S-Motor locomotive, three eight-wheel passenger cars, and an oval of track. They followed in 1922 with 17 different sets. There was only room for a single American Flyer set, priced at $1.67.
But by 1925, the economy was better, and Sears was ready to move upmarket. In 1925, Sears cataloged a Lionel set priced at $22.95, a huge jump over Bing’s $7.98 top-end sets. Ominously, Sears also cataloged a train set from the predecessor to Marx. The two quickly squeezed Bing out of the market. By 1927, it was Bing who was down to a single set in the Sears catalog.
Go North, young man
Bing then looked north to Canada. The Canadian market was 1/10 that of the United States, but there was less competition, and prices were higher, which meant bigger profits. They had sold through various retail outlets, but started concentrating on sales through T. Eaton, a Toronto-based catalog retailer.
Eaton cataloged various Bing sets, aimed at the middle range of the market, Bing shared space in the catalog with Bub, another German manufacturer, at the low end of the price range, and American Flyer at the high end. The arrangement lasted until 1933.
The North American market was getting more difficult, though there was a possible glimmer of hope. Those state of the art manufacturing methods had problems, namely zinc pest, and Bing might have been able to claw back some market share by positioning their methods as tried and true. But problems in Germany left them unable to capitalize on that window of opportunity. If you’re familiar with world history, you probably have some idea where this is going.
Trouble in Germany
By 1927, Bing was in serious financial trouble. The family, which was Jewish, found the banks were refusing to loan the company money, which makes conducting business difficult. Seeking a new start, the company’s president, Stefan Bing, and his son, left the company. They purchased Fortner & Haffner, another Nuremberg-based toy firm. But by 1932, they and other former Bing executives had to flee to England to escape the threat of Adolf Hitler. The company that bore their name went into liquidation in 1932 and out of business for good in 1933. Even if it hadn’t been for the financial difficulties, Hitler would not have permitted a Jewish-owned company to continue.
Various rival companies divided the former Bing tooling. Karl Bub acquired the train line and continued production until 1939. Falk and Krauss purchased the model steam related equipment. Fritz Hintermayr acquired the gas boiler production. Fleischmann bought the model boat fabrication tooling and machinery.
Stefan Bing helped to start the British company Trix. Other Bing executives started the similarly named company Trix Express. Trix went on to have a successful 35-year run, under various owners, as one of the three major British producers of OO trains.
Bing trains today
In the United States at least, Bing is a niche make, something advanced collectors graduate to when they get bored with more common brands and want something that it doesn’t seem like everyone else is chasing. The well publicized Jerni collection, for example, resulted from Jerry Greene, a Philadelphia record dealer, tiring of Lionel. He sold his Lionel collection and specialized in German trains and accessories, especially those made in Nuremberg. Living in Philadelphia, he was able to build a sizable collection never traveling further than 100 miles from home.
But until Jerry Greene decided it was time to sell his collection, you didn’t hear about Bing very much. The occasional article turns up in the hobby publications, but at a rate of around one a decade. Greene’s incredible collection gave these trains some well deserved attention.
As you go further west, it’s harder to find trains made by anyone not named American Flyer, Lionel, and Marx. After all, in 1920, the population center of the United States was Owen County, Indiana. In 2020, it’s Wright County, Missouri, about 400 miles to the west-southwest. If you want to collect German trains, especially pre-WWI German trains, it helps to live on the east coast. In my experience, I can find postwar-era trains to buy any weekend. Prewar trains were always tougher, but I could find one in an estate once a month or so. But in spite of the huge German population in St. Louis, Bing trains are scarce.
Now that Lionel’s ad campaigns are a distant memory, it’s easy to appreciate the workmanship and artistry that went into the Nuremberg Style. There’s certainly a market for Bing trains, it’s just there aren’t a lot of people who know about them.