model train set on track

Vintage Toy Trains: Pre-WWII through the 1970s

Because the history of toy trains stretches back into the mid-19th century, the toy train hobby today can look a bit different for each individual collector or researcher as they choose their niche or area of expertise. One way of focusing collecting is by vintage—or age—of the toy trains a collector is most interested in.  

World War II (1939-1945) 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. What is your preferred era of toy trains? Find excellent examples in our database! 

Pre-War Toy Trains 

While toy trains appeared around the middle decades of the 1800s, it wasn’t until the turn of the century that electric train sets began production. After all, it wasn’t until the last few years of the 1800s that electricity was introduced into private homes—and it took quite a while to catch on in some places.  

A popular collecting niche is these early electric trains, which were technological marvels of the day. Pre-war trains were not necessarily very accurate reproductions of full-size trains, however. 

Post-War to 1970s Toy Trains 

As with many manufactured things, World War II (ending in 1945) completely changed processes and materials. 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. The modern-day emphasis on realism in model railroading started to catch on, though many toy trains also grew more realistic. Also, note the proliferation of plastic as a material during this period. No longer were toy trains primarily made from metal. 

Search the Database 

Ready to research? Examples of toy trains from every possible brand abound in our database. Search by manufacturer, gauge, and/or year to return results from our National Toy Train Museum collections and more. 

More Toy Train Information for Collectors 


Toy 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 Toy 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?