Nonpareil is an unsung brand of tinplate toy trains from the early 20th century. Based in Newark, New Jersey, they made floor trains out of lithographed tin that resemble Ives trains, but they are less well known. The company, whose full name was the Nonpareil Toy and Novelty Company, was in business from 1914 to 1933.
Not French, not related to Ives, and not involved in the war effort
The name Nonpareil leads some people to conclude it was a French company, which is was not. The name Nonpareil means “without peer” in French and is pronounced more like “none prell.” The origin of the name is unknown, although Shelton Weil, a son of one of the founders, wrote that it did not come from the name of the candy. There is a peach native to New Jersey by that name so perhaps they drew inspiration from that. Saul and David Weil were Russian immigrants.
There were numerous other misconceptions about the company that Weil set straight in his short book about his family’s company. The company was only in business from 1914 to 1933, so it did not produce anything for either World War I or World War II. And even though their products sometimes resembled Ives toys, they were not related to Ives. They did buy or borrow tooling from other companies, including Chein.
Brothers Saul and David Weil and Sam Hoffman had worked at Chein, learned the trade, and felt they could do better on their own than they could trying to advance at Chein. So they founded Nonpareil.
The trains Nonpareil made are approximately O gauge but are meant as floor toys, not for track. The 4-wheel cars can be coaxed to run on O gauge track but the 8-wheel cars cannot, since the trucks don’t turn. The trucks are removable, so some hobbyists will mount other brands of trucks on them to use them on track. They look good with Ives.
If you want a tin litho train for decoration, a Nonpareil is hard to beat. They are relatively inexpensive, especially compared to other makes from the same era, and look the part.
In addition to trains, they also made toy merry-go-rounds, banks, and cars. Lots and lots of cars.
The Nonpareil factories
Nonpareil had a factory at 13 Crosby Street in New York City, and it was damaged by fire in 1915. In 1916 they relocated to 60 Union Street in Newark, where they remained until 1928. It maintained a showroom in New York at 11-15 Union Square. Their Newark facility still stands, and a ghost sign on the side reads, ever so faintly, “TOYS.” Today the building serves as residential and art space.
New Jersey was once a booming area for toy companies. Lionel’s factory was there. But lots of smaller companies were too, like Colber and Unique Art.
The demise of Nonpareil and what came next
Nonpareil met its end in 1933, brought about by a chain of events that started with a fire in April 1928. The fire damaged the building and destroyed between $25,000 and $50,000 worth of inventory. The company relocated to a temporary facility at 123 Sussex Avenue in Newark while the factory was refurbished. Then the owner of the building sold it out from under them, forcing Nonpareil to contract work out to Kirchoff, the firm that had bought their factory out from under them. The loss of quality control hurt the firm, so they moved to a new plant in Bloomfield, NJ, but had to train new workers because their former staff didn’t want to relocate. With no experienced foremen, and David Weil falling ill, Saul Weil had to run the plant. This kept him from spending as much time negotiating sales as he needed to. Saul Weil wound down the operation, selling through old inventory and contracted goods until 1933.
Ironically, in 1938, Kirchoff hired Saul Weil to straighten out their operations. Three of Saul Weil’s sons started their own toy company after World War II, Weil Bros, lasting approximately 20 years. Saul Weil continued at Kirchoff until joining his sons in business in 1952. He died in September 1957 at the age of 68.
A book about them was published in 1997 but is long out of print. The author was Shelton Weil, another one of Saul Weil’s sons.