In the 1950s and 1960s, it was possible to walk into Sears and see an Allstate electric train on the same shelf as Lionel and American Flyer. These trains are still somewhat common today. That leads to some further questions.
Yes, it’s Allstate, as in the insurance company. What did they have to do with electric trains?
Well, at the time, Sears owned Allstate. And Sears has a long history of selling things under their own brand. The “Sears Video Arcade” of the 1980s was just a re-branded Atari 2600. Kenmore appliances are always made by someone else. I can’t speak for their other appliances, but their conventional top-loading washers and matching dryers are made by Whirlpool. They’re actually very good–dependable and cheap to fix yourself.
In the postwar era, electric trains were immensely popular. Sears, like most other retailers, sold Lionel and American Flyer trains. But they wanted their own brand to sell alongside them. So Sears turned to New York-based toy manufacturer Louis Marx and Company, who had been selling electric trains since the 1930s and was the longest-running competitor of Lionel and A.C. Gilbert, the maker of American Flyer. Marx sold trains in both O gauge, which had been around since the beginning of the century, and in HO scale, which was gaining in popularity in the 1950s and is the most popular scale in use today. Sears sometimes called the O gauge trains “regular gauge,” which is a a bit humorous today. If any size of train is “regular” today, it’s HO scale.
Sears chose Allstate because it sounded more railroad-like than any other brand it controlled. And, let’s face it, it sounds just as credible as “Lionel Lines” or “American Flyer Lines,” which both competitors frequently stamped on their own trains. Sears had a few of the cars stamped “Allstate,” and Marx mixed those in along with cars that bore the names of real railroads. The locomotives were identical to what Marx sold everyone else.
Marx was a good choice. Marx made the same motor for nearly 40 years, changing it only to improve its reliability based on what they found from fixing broken motors. They knew firsthand, from keeping a train running in its New York showroom every day, which allowed them to see the effects of wear. And every locomotive Marx shipped made its way from the assembly line to the packing area on its own power, on a length of track, to ensure that it ran. So Marx’s defect rate was very low. The majority of Marx trains I find in basements and attics today still run. Those that don’t run frequently will come to life after a basic cleaning. It’s possible to clean up the track, and the transformer is easy to check for safety, and Marx transformers are easy to repair.
Usually when people are looking for information about a train, they also want to know what it’s worth. Marx trains don’t have the following that Lionel and American Flyer do. But I also haven’t seen their values fluctuate nearly as much as the other two brands, either. A good starting point for the value of a common Marx set, and by extension, Allstate, is $50-$100. A set containing a rare car will go higher.
I’m not certain when Sears stopped re-branding Marx trains, but it was no later than 1975. Marx produced its last train in November 1975. By then, Marx was no longer an independent company but rather a struggling division of Quaker Oats, managed by Fisher-Price management that wasn’t used to dealing with the seasonal ebbs and flows inherent in so much of Marx’s product line. Trains were no longer a must-have toy by then either. Competitor A.C. Gilbert went out of business in 1967. Lionel left the business in 1969, selling its train line to General Mills, who resumed production in 1970.