Windup toy trains were popular at the dawn of the 20th century, when electricity was a luxury. But they remained on the market well into the 1960s as a cheaper and simpler option for young kids who liked trains. They retain a small but devoted following today because of their inherent challenges compared to electric-powered toy trains.

Electricity as a luxury

Marx set 452

This Marx set, which features a plastic-bodied engine with a windup motor, dates to 1962.

At the turn of the 20th century, electricity wasn’t something manufacturers could count on all of its customers having. In the area where I live, the first house with electricity was built in 1907. Powering toys with worn-out car batteries was an economical option for houses that didn’t have electricity, but using a windup motor was an even more practical option. It was also safer.

Makers of windup toy trains

In the United States, the largest manufacturer of windup toy trains at the turn of the century was Ives. Even once Ives started offering electric trains, its founder, Harry Ives, preferred the windups. Competitor American Flyer and its offshoot, Hafner, joined Ives in the first decades of the century. Lionel, which started out as a producer of electrical novelties, stayed out of the windup market until the 1930s when the Great Depression forced them to turn to windup-based products to give them inexpensive toys to sell to customers who couldn’t afford its electric trains.

Marx was late to start offering windup toy trains, but sold them into the 1960s, offering them as an inexpensive, convenient, and expandable toy for young kids. Kids could assemble the track without having to know how to wire a transformer, and could operate the train with little or no supervision.

The appeal of windup toy trains

While the majority of hobbyists prefer electric trains, there are hobbyists who prefer windups even today. Hobbyists will set up a layout with multiple stations along its track. Then they’ll figure out how many winds it takes to run the train from station to station. Figuring out how many winds it takes to go from station to station, then remembering it and executing it requires a fair bit of skill, and adds a challenge that you don’t get with electric trains.

James Pekarek is the most prolific author in the United States on windup trains. He has authored books on operating and collecting windup trains and also on repairing windup trains.