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.
What was arguably the premier steam engine toy company, Bing, originated in Nürnberg, Germany, around the mid-1860s. Gebrüder Bing began steam toy production in 1879, and the company's creations ranged from steam engines to carousels to Ferris wheels. The late 1800s and early 1900s found Bing's product line adopted by fellow German builders Bub, Falk and Krauss Mohr.
American producer Weeden Mfg. entered the market in 1882 with its own glow-in-the-dark version of the match safe. Despite more than 50 years of successful enterprising, Weeden, too, was impacted by the harshness of World War II: After an industrious attempt by National Playthings to redistribute the company and its products, Weeden saw its last creations in 1952.
The steam engine replicas of the late 19th and early 20th centuries varied drastically in their functions. As toys their purpose was lighthearted, entertaining the young with the allure of the fantastic: "Naturally, children idolized the engineer, seeing in his work the fulfillment of their own desires. Many youngsters skipped school to see a thresherman in action and to dream of the day when they would become one of the elite," states Reynold M. Wik in Farm Steam Engineers: Pioneers in Rural America. These were toys, however, markedly different from the durable plastic playthings contemporary children recognize. "Expensive, ornate and complex to operate, they were more of an art form," notes John O'Rear a software developer and historian. Jan Athey librarian for the Toy Train Reference Library and Train Collectors Assn., echoes that fact: "Many of these steam toys were difficult to operate and involved the use of water, fire and alcohol, so the consumer of these toys was more likely an adult than a child."
These were toys that ranged in price from 50 cents per toy to more than $5 per toy, in a time when the average laborer earned $600 annually. Live steam engines occupied an even more costly price range. Most children at the turn of the century were unable to afford such unique "toys" - underscoring the conclusion that the models were primarily for adults.
Why, then, would steam engine builders want to attract an audience of adults? In the 1920s, when there was no television and families were limited to the radio and catalogs for leisure, the steam engine served a dual purpose: it entertained and informed.
The ubiquity of world's fairs at the turn of the century attests to the thinking of the time. From 1853 until 1904, American world's fairs celebrated the newest farming implements, especially machines representing advancements in cultivation and in reaping and threshing grain.
Americans hungered for confirmation of the fledgling country's self-determination, and for some it came in the form of steam engine models. The common worker stayed abreast of social and technological change through the catalogs that entered his home, and featured in those catalogs were the steam engine models of greats such as Weeden and Jensen.
Technology has long played a pivotal role in society, and one marker of a society's progress lies in its forms of entertainment. Technology unfailingly figures into entertainment, whether in a device as puzzling as the AEolipile or as ornate as a glow-in-the-dark holder for matches. Contemporary technology behaves similarly.
When the steam engine literally roared into the forefront of American perception in the 19th century, it assumed the power of a symbol of American determination and fortitude.
"It was the plantation owners in the southern states who first brought steam power into American farming, using the new engines to drive the sugar cane crushers, their cotton gins and rice mills, and to saw timber from their woodlands," Wik states.
Not surprisingly, exposure of that symbol to the public followed. American builders eagerly forged ahead of their European fellows in the production of steam engines and steam engine models alike, spurred by the buying power of the average American worker.
That the popularity of steam engine models has waned but not died completely, attests to the enduring appeal of steam in American society. Jensen continues to produce working toys and models crafted after models originating from the late 1800s, and the Train Collectors Assn. maintains the Toy Train Reference Library, one of the world's largest and most extensive tinplate collections (www.nttmuseum.org).
Websites such as eBay offer countless steam-powered products, and the number of fake replicas sold as authentic speaks to the tenacious passion of today's buyers.
Katheryn Bramble and Kyllikki B. Brock are students who attended Robert T. Rhode's seminar on the literature and the history of the steam-power era at Northern Kentucky University, and spent the 2005 fall semester researching and composing this article.
Contact Katheryn Bramble at: firstname.lastname@example.org Contact Kyllikki B. Brock at: email@example.com