model train set on track

Vintage Model Trains: Pre-WWII through the 1970s

Toy trains—starting with so-called floor or “carpet trains” made from metal or wood and played with on the floor—first appeared in the mid-19th century. These early toys were rather crude likenesses of real-life trains compared to the model trains we know today, but they essentially created the hobby we all enjoy. And, they represent just one example of a collecting focus or niche in the world of vintage toy and model trains. 

Most likely, you’ve reached this page because you’re looking for more information about vintage model trains from the “Golden Age” of the 1920s through the beginning of World War II (1939-1945). WWII represents a massive cultural shift that changed how toy trains were produced, marketed, and even appreciated by consumers, so many collectors will focus on either pre-war models or those made after 1945. (In fact, production of toy trains was mostly halted during the United States’ involvement in the War.) 

What is your preferred era of toy trains? Find excellent examples of books, handbooks, catalogs, advertisements, photographs and more in our database! 

Model Railroading in the Pre-War Period 

Model Railroader magazine began publishing in 1934 following what some know as the Golden Age of model trains in the 1920s. This was when differentiation between toy trains and more exacting scale model train building and collecting started to grow more pronounced. 

This period before WWII also saw some of the most significant milestones in model railroading, including the introduction of HO and O scale trains in the 1930s. 

Post-War to 1970s Model Trains 

World War II disrupted the model train hobby, as many manufacturers suspended production to support the Allied war effort between 1942-1945. When the War was over, new manufacturing processes and materials completely changed model railroading. No longer were toy and model trains primarily made from metal, but plastic, which made them more affordable to produce. 

The War also radically altered consumer attitudes, especially in the USA. Beginning in the 1950s, the distinction between toy trains marketed to children and scale model railroads grew even more—and the popularity of both playing with toy trains and being serious about model trains exploded.  

The modern-day emphasis on realism in model railroading started to catch on, though many toy trains also grew more realistic, as well. Several more scales were introduced during the 1960s and into the early 1970s, including N, G, and Z. 

Search the National Toy Train Library Database 

Ready to research? Examples of model trains from every possible brand abound in our database. Search books, handbooks, catalogs, advertisements, photographs and much more in our National Toy Train Library database. 

More Model Train Information for Collectors 


Toy trains (including model trains) come in different sizes, reflecting different rail gauges—the distance between the main rails on the track—and scales. We have information for you about some of the most popular toy and model train gauges. 

Grading Standards 

TCA has adopted standards to help guide toy train collectors and encourage common terminology usage when describing things like item categories and conditions. Visit our Grading Standards section of the website for more information. 


Creating scale environments for toy trains is something that many collectors dedicate a lot of time to. Layouts may be purely make-believe settings, or they can be designed as scaled-down versions of real-world locations.

Grow Your Love of Model Trains with Other Enthusiasts. Join TCA Today! 

If you are not yet a member of the Train Collectors Association, you’re missing out. TCA Members receive a long list of tangible benefits that put them on the toy train collectors’ inside track! These include free admission to the National Toy Train Museum in Strasburg, PA, as well as access to special collections of material in the National Toy Train Library, among other great perks and benefits our TCA members enjoy.  

Ready to get involved and join our excellent organization with thousands of other model and toy train enthusiasts around the world?