How Ives-branded track clips ended up in Lionel sets

Ives-branded track clips for Lionel O27 track are relatively common, and although they are often mistaken for pre-1933 items, they were actually manufactured for several decades after the Ives brand name disappeared from the marketplace, and by Lionel, not its erstwhile rival Ives.

Lionel stamped the Ives name on track clips to protect the trademark. If you don’t use a trademark for several years, someone else can apply for it and start using it. Lionel didn’t want that.

Ives track clip
Lionel protected the Ives trademark for decades by burying it on the underside of this humble track clip.

At the turn of the previous century, Ives was one of the largest toy companies in the United States and Lionel was an upstart. But Ives had a couple of runs of bad luck, thanks to a fire in its factory and then World War I. During World War I, its rivals Lionel and American Flyer were able to manufacture profitable items for the war effort thanks to their presence in New York and Chicago. Ives, being in Connecticut, was mostly shut out of these lucrative contracts. New York and Chicago were better distribution centers.

So at the end of the war, Ives’ competitors were flush with cash. While they roared into the 1920s, Ives struggled, and in 1928, Ives ran out of money. Lionel and Flyer jointly bought their competitor, operated it for two years, and divided up the technology, including the coveted e-unit. Lionel gained sole control of the company in 1930. Then Lionel used Ives as something of a budget brand for two more years, then wound down operations, reducing Ives to little more than fond memories.

If you’re more interested in using track clips than in their history, here’s some advice on their use.

Protecting the Ives trademark

Lionel didn’t want to market Ives trains after 1933. But also didn’t want the Ives trademark to fall into the hands of a rival. So they had to use it. On something.

The cunning Joshua Lionel Cowen decided to bury the trademark, literally. He put it on one side of clips designed to hold cheap O27 track together when people set it up on the floor. And for good measure, he put it on the side that would be covered up when assembled. Few people would ever notice it. But it was still in use, technically. And for decades it kept someone else from resurrecting the Ives trademark.

The Lionel name was right under the Ives name, so there was no doubt it was still a Lionel product. The box it came in just said Lionel, never mentioning Ives. The clips don’t fit on Ives track, but that didn’t matter to Lionel. This was all about doing the minimum to keep a trademark that Lionel only wanted so no one else could have it.

But then Lionel slipped up. At some point, Lionel quit stamping the Ives name on the clips. I have MPC-era clips stamped Lionel and Mt. Clemens, Michigan, and I also have clips with nothing stamped on them at all. It was a cost-reduction measure, and maybe no one under the new ownership knew or cared anymore about the Ives trademark. But someone else did.

The Ives trademark and MTH

Years after Cowen’s death, his fear came true. An upstart, in the form of Maryland-based MTH Electric Trains, swooped in and registered the trademark. MTH applied for the Ives trademark sometime around 2001. The US Patent and Trademark Office granted it in 2003, ruling that the trademark was abandoned in 1999. Someone at Lionel apparently forgot to re-register the trademark when it was due. And by then, Lionel hadn’t used it in years, possibly decades.

MTH soon started selling reproductions of Ives trains using the Ives name. Some Ives fans hated it, since they weren’t original and weren’t made in the United States. Some loved it, since it permitted them to own brand-new trains that looked quite a bit like the originals.

For Lionel, it was a missed opportunity, as they could have licensed the trademark to MTH and collected a royalty. Whether Cowen would have ever considered licensing the name is unclear. But he certainly wasn’t one to give away something for free, and he wasn’t one to pass up an opportunity to humiliate a defeated rival. So that’s why Ives-branded track clips that don’t work on track that Ives actually manufactured exist. It’s also why you frequently find Ives track clips mixed in with 1950s trains, or even trains from the 60s and 70s. The clips aren’t as old as they look.

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