The largest maker of toy trains in the United States in the early 20th century was Ives, an old-line toy company headquartered in Bridgeport, Conn. Ives trains retained a following long after the company who made them went bankrupt. MTH produces reproduction Ives electric trains even today.
The start of Ives trains
The Ives Manufacturing Company started producing cast iron trains as floor toys in the late 19th century. In 1901, following a factory fire, Ives retooled and introduced clockwork-powered O gauge trains that ran on track. The bodies of the locomotives were usually cast iron, while the freight cars and passenger cars were pressed lithographed tin. Lithographed tin was inexpensive, colorful, and attractive.
Ives electric trains followed in 1910 and production lasted until 1933 when Ives dissolved. Electric trains didn’t completely displace the clockwork trains. Not all homes had electricity, and even as electricity became more common, clockwork trains survived as a lower budget option. Even after Ives started producing electric trains, company president Edward Ives preferred clockworks. Ives O gauge trains lasted on the market until 1933.
Toy trains were popular and proved profitable. It provided manufacturers an opportunity to sell accessories for years after the initial sale.
Sizes of Ives trains
Ives produced a large number of O gauge trains. For higher-end trains, Ives followed the international standard of 1 gauge, which survives today as modern G scale. Ives introduced 1 gauge trains in 1912. Lionel’s Standard Gauge became popular as a high end toy train standard, so Ives matched it starting in 1921. Lionel had a trademark on the name, so Ives and its competitors American Flyer and Dorfan called their compatible offerings Wide Gauge, since the track was wider than O gauge or 1 gauge.
Unlike modern model railroading, Ives trains weren’t scale models, though they did generally try harder to make their trains resemble real trains than their competitors.
Ives successfully advertised to children, putting them in charge of the fictional Ives Railway Lines and making them feel like partners in the venture. Lionel copied the advertising, also appealing to children, while also creating ads targeting parents. Lionel’s advertising wasn’t always entirely truthful. Lionel played up the differences in its offerings, calling its products more durable, although it sometimes compared its most expensive trains to Ives’ cheapest trains. It also attacked Ives’ lithography as cheap and not durable, claiming its enamel paint was superior. Over the decades, Ives’ lithography held up better than Lionel’s enamel, even if it was less expensive.
Ives was the largest toy manufacturer in the United States at the onset of the 20th century, but World War I benefited its competitors. Lionel’s manufacturing facilities were close to New York City and American Flyer’s facilities were in Chicago, so both companies were able to manufacture wartime supplies for the government, which proved lucrative. Ives’ operations in Bridgeport weren’t as attractive, so Ives didn’t get the same opportunities. Ives was able to continue making toys, but supply scarcity limited what it could produce, and made shipping more difficult.
During and after World War I, anti-German sentiment benefited all domestic toy manufacturers, but Lionel and American Flyer had more money to put into research and development.
In 1924, Ives introduced a feature it called the e-unit. Officially, “e” stood for electronic, even though it was a mechanical solenoid. The e-unit would cycle the train between forward, neutral, and reverse by interrupting the power. There was no need for a switch on the locomotive to change direction. This made it much easier to change directions on the far side of the layout and increased the possibility to run toy trains like real railroads ran them.
The e-unit gave Ives a competitive advantage, but ultimately proved to be its undoing. We normally associate the term e-unit with a company other than Ives, which gives a big clue.
Ives sold its entry-level train sets at a loss, which its competitors didn’t always do, and Ives lost money during much of the 1920s. Ives’ largest creditor sued in 1928 and Ives filed for bankruptcy, reporting liabilities of $188,303.25. In 2017 dollars, this was about $2.7 million.
The company sought to reorganize, and Ives fans today argue the bankruptcy was unnecessary, as Ives had Christmas orders of $245,000 already lined up at mid-year. But three of Ives’ competitors squeezed the company out of business. Lionel and American Flyer wanted Ives’ e-unit. A third company, A.C. Gilbert, wasn’t interested in the trains but wanted Ives’ construction set off the market to eliminate a competitor for its Erector sets. Gilbert had influence over Ives’ creditors in Bridgeport. Things like this happen in business. Hafner’s end came because one of its creditors had a connection to Louis Marx.
Lionel didn’t have enough money for the purchase. Enter Gilbert again. Gilbert lined up financing to help Lionel jointly purchase Ives along with American Flyer. They retained Harry Ives and Charles Johnson but otherwise put their own management in charge. Lionel and American Flyer purchased the name and the factory but not the tooling, which they had to rent. Joshua Lionel Cowen claimed he threw the Ives tooling in the Delaware River himself, but this is hyperbole, as he never owned the tooling. Since the Ives designs were more labor intensive, Lionel and American Flyer used their own parts to build Ives trains once they used up the supply of existing Ives parts.
American Flyer soon sold its share to Lionel, who moved production to Irvington, New Jersey. Lionel discontinued the Ives line in 1933, except for stamping the name on track clips. Harry Ives died in 1935.