Wooden Track Trains – a Brief History
today’s children, the introduction to wooden track railroading likely
starts with Thomas the Tank Engine … happily duplicating his TV adventures
on the playroom floor. Along with Thomas, wood trains of all types and a
dizzying variety of playsets and accessories are widely available. Most
brands of modern wooden track trains work harmoniously with the trains and
track of almost every other brand ... and in many cases, with their
vintage brethren, too. In the highly competitive toy world, this
cross-brand compatibility is rather surprising.
However, we can’t really give Thomas and his friends the credit for this
compatibility. Undoubtedly, we must attribute the lion’s share of the
credit to two ingenious citizens of Skaneateles NY … Marshal Hart Larrabee
II and his wife Elizabeth.
Marshal Larrabee was a graduate of Wharton School in 1931, but was struck
down with tuberculosis a year later. During his lengthy recuperation, he
took up woodworking to occupy the long days. After making a variety of
items, he asked his wife what he should make next. (He had already made
large toy trains that children dragged across floors with pull-strings.)
Prophetically, Elizabeth said, “make a little train that a child will hold
in his hand”.
Marshal made “little” trains. He also devised wooden track sections, with
grooves about 1 ¼ inches apart, for the trains to travel in. Different
layouts could be made by putting together various combinations of straight
and curved track. Blocks were used for buildings and for track supports
to make bridges.
Larrabee’s train sets became instantly popular with family and friends.
He soon became convinced that the sets could become a financial success.
While traveling throughout the US in the late 1930’s, he began a sales
promotion effort for his little trains. By 1941, he had received a US
patent for his train design ... and had landed his first major commercial
customer, Marshal Fields Department Stores in Chicago. He formally
started his company (named Skaneateles Handicrafters) in a converted
marine engine machine shop.
the postwar sales success of Larrabee’s expanding toy product line,
educators recognized that SH-style playsets helped to stimulate a child’s
imagination and creativity … while also developing problem-solving and
motor skills. Wooden track playsets also became very popular in group
settings such as pre-schools, church schools and daycare centers. The
sets were safe and durable, and helped to develop socialization and
team-building skills during group play.
1950’s saw the arrival of grooved track playsets from other toymakers such
as Keystone Manufacturing Co, the Jack Built Toy Co and BRIO (Sweden).
These companies also used the identical 1 ¼ inch groove size (gauge) for
their track. Early in the 1960’s, wooden train sets from Micki Leksaker
(Sweden) and two German toy companies Eichhorn and Hermann Rosberg (HEROS)
had emerged. The genre’ of the wooden train with a “standard” track gauge
was now firmly established in the toy world.
By the late 1960’s, two
component innovations … “peg & hole” track connectors and magnetic train
couplers … had been adopted by nearly every manufacturer. A subtle but
critical feature of the peg & hole track is the ability to provide a
little “wiggle room” in the track connections. Children did not have to
assemble their track layouts in a totally precise manner. They could
“bend” the track layout connections a bit to suit their needs. However,
the track sections would still remain firmly connected. Likewise,
magnetic disk train couplers provided a safe, strong and flexible linkage
between railcars without the need for metal hooks. (Skaneateles
Handicrafters was the only notable exception to the adoption of these
virtually universal train and track features.)
The sales of wooden track
trains chugged along nicely through the 1970’s and 80’s. During this
time, the popularity of the brightly colored BRIO trains made this Swedish
manufacturer the best-known maker of wooden trains worldwide. Most other
trains were judged as to whether or not they were “BRIO-compatible”.
the early 1990’s, wooden versions of Thomas the Tank Engine … the hero of
children’s books and TV … exploded onto the marketplace. Seemingly every
child wanted Thomas and his friends on their train layout. And the kids
didn’t want just one a two different trains … they wanted scores of
different train “personalities”. Names like James, Percy, Gordon and
Henry became pervasive in the daily conversations of kids all over the
world. Children went from being wood train “operators” into becoming wood
train “collectors”. Toymakers without a license to make Thomas products
responded with extensive lines of creatively distinctive trains … from
vintage steam engines and hard-working diesels to alpine ski lift gondolas
and sleek “bullet trains”. Some trains were even motorized … enabling
them to chug along on their own power as long as the batteries held out.
The 90’s also saw the
inexorable march of Asian-made toys (like most Thomas products) into the
marketplace. Price competition became almost as important as creative
design. Even BRIO went through a painful reorganization (few trains now
have the “Made in Sweden” sticker). However, kids will continue to love
these imagination-driven train sets … regardless of their manufacturing
a collector’s viewpoint, there is something very appealing about the
simplistic yet artful designs of these toys and the heirloom feel of the
hardwoods used. These little trains remind us of simpler and more
innocent times. On a personal level, these trains were critical to the
childhood progress of my developmentally disabled son. Based on recent
observations, there seems to be a growing collector appreciation of these
toys. Vintage train sets in excellent condition … particularly with their
original packaging … are becoming more elusive and a bit more “pricey”.
If you have any questions or comments, I would be delighted to hear from
continue your journey, click on the individual manufacturers’ links.
Keep your wheels
in the grooves!