Steam-Era Toys

Toys Played an Enduring Role During the 19th Century

| September 2006

It is the 19th century, and America's economy is booming with new technology. The steam engine has debuted in American society and there is no stopping the force with which its popularity redoubles. The machine's impact on society extends beyond the economic plain into the classes and into American homes, which are seeing the happy intrusion of toys that are run by steam. But these toys are not like toys today that mothers and fathers throw at their children to entertain them; these toys require adults to play with their children in a personal and memorable event.

But who is benefiting from the models? Excited children fascinated by the enigmatic machinery? Enthusiastic fathers delighted to have a piece of the exotic in their hands? In a word, both. Tracing the history of the model steam engine reveals the intricacies of the machine's relationship with society and underscores an oft-overlooked function of the steam engine.


The toy has indeed had an intimate past with steam technology. The AEolipile (Greek for "wind ball"), a primitive steam engine dating from as early as 50 B.C., was considered a toy in its own time and is marketed as such still. Steam engine toys are produced today by a multitude of companies such as Jensen, Hubley, Bing and Weeden.

One of the longest-lasting steam engine model manufacturers is the Jensen Steam Engine Mfg. Co. Its innovative engine, Old No. 1, was completed in 1923 and stands today as a representative of Jensen's current models.

The Hubley Mfg. Co., established in 1894 in Lancaster, Pa., built one of the first steam engine models. Hubley specialized in cast iron replicas of steam engines and toy trains. By minimizing the scales of its models, Hubley deftly avoided the hardships of the Depression, but World War II took its toll. The company was purchased by Gabriel Industries in 1965, but disappeared from the market soon after.

It was World War II, in fact, and the associated iron shortages that dulled the enthusiasm for steam engine models. Unable to combat the rising costs of materials and a diminishing buyer audience, various builders met with closings.