In the 1880's and extending into the 1960's, model steam engines were very popular. But at the time, these live steam models were not child's toys, but more of an art form, because they were expensive and difficult to operate.
Besides mechanical sculptures, these model, live steam engines also served as an information and educational resource. Mechanical steam models played a bigger role in the growing industrial revolution, than they do today. In a period that saw great change in how our world & civilization was powered, but no motion pictures to illustrate the complex workings of these new steam engines, models were a primary instructional & reference material. If you wanted to see how it worked, a steam model was the only way and the public was hungry for knowledge of the machines that were changing their lives. This was the Victorian era, when everything was possible, even having a model of a power generating plant on your desk before you had electricity in your house. Steam machines were transforming our civilization and everyone but everyone wanted to be a part of it.
Upwards of five million model steam engines were made during this time. Most of the finest live model steam engines were made in the Nuremberg area of Germany, which had become one of the centers of precision machinery manufacturing. In this locale could be found everything mechanical, from the first pocket watch; the Nuremburg Egg, to the precision drafing instruments with which engineers were designing even greater creations. Throughout the 1800’s, Nuremburg was famous for the very elaborate mechanical clockwork models and this talent reached its peak with the live steam models and the toys that they powered. In Bavaria, there resided the finest metalworkers in Germany, who were in general the finest metalworkers in the world. This was no coincidence, Nuremburg is located in one of the richest mineral deposits in all of Europe and had a ready supply of the various metals. Precision machinery was invented there, and refined to a point of excellence.
Eight major manufacturers of model steam engines conducted business in the Nuremburg area: Carette, Doll, Bing, Krauss Mohr, Falk, Marklin, Schoenner and Plank. There were a number of minor manufacturers as well; Bischoff, Eberl, Hess, Heubeck, Issmayer, Neumeyer, and Scholler to name a few, but none approached the major builders in either volume or variety. Fleischmann also produced a line of model model engines, but their machines were much simpler than those of the Nuremburg masters. There were two major builders of elaborate steam models in France: Rossignol and Radiguet, but current prices have precluded adding examples to this collection. The trade was not limited to Germany and France: Mamod, Bowman, Burnac and others in the UK, and Jensen, Empire, Ind-X, and Weeden in the US also produced modest steam models. None matched the elegance, the variety, or the precision of the Nuremburg makers.
If there was a 'golden age' of live steam models, it would be in the 1890-1930 time frame. Around 1900, production soared, as did diversity, and continued until the early 1930s. Even in the post WW1 era, when Germany was bankrupt in the wake of the Versailles treaty, elaborate models were still in high demand. The Nuremburg makers were one of the few bright economic successes in an otherwise dismal situation.
It was not to last. Schoenner had ceased active production by 1905, though formal purchase by Falk was not completed until 1912. Carette, still a French citizen, was deported from Germany in 1917, his company taken by Karl Bub. The worst was yet to come. As the Nuremburg makers rode the post WW1 boom to success, so they followed the subsequent Depression to failure. Germany was particularly hard hit and precision model makers were the first casualties. Only those companies that had diversified survived and those who specialized in elaborate models: Doll, Plank, Falk, Krauss Mohr and Bing, fell one by one.
Bing invested heavily in an ill advised US division, the Bing Corporation of NY, headed up by a family member, John Bing. The financial losses from this contributed to their collapse. In at least four cases, Bing, Falk, Plank, and Doll, anti-Semitism of the 1930’s led to or hastened their demise, as the owners were Jewish. A most ungrateful fate, as those companies had kept thousands of people employed during the German depression of the 1920's. Plank sold out to Schaller, who bought their factory largely to get the optics from their magic lantern line. Fleischmann ended up with Doll, and produced Doll labeled engines as late as 1949.
Falk also sold out to Schaller. Marklin and Fleischmann survived on their model trains, but the rest disappeared.
After the end of WW2, the German toy industry was, like everything else in Germany, pretty much demolished. Fleischmann got a boost from the Marshall Plan. In the US Zone, the 'tin toys for tinned food' program was devised, whereby the toymakers got their factories operational and sent the entire year's production to the US, in return for food supplies. This program is the reason that some older Fleischmann model steam engines with 'Made in Germany US Zone' printed on the bottom, can be found in the US. The British took a somewhat different view, probably influenced by the large piles of rubble in their cities and the large number of fresh graves nearby. British steam blossomed for a brief period, in the late 1940's and 1950's, but the engines rarely made it outside of the UK. Mamod and SEL were the major makers, with a host of smaller marques as well. Sadly, this mini boom was just in time to see the steam model lose it's popularity and Mamod was the only UK manufacturer to survive. (not counting Stuart, who still thrives to this day)
By 1960, the model steam engine had become virtually extinct, kept in production only by Jensen, Mamod, Fleischmann, Marklin and a latecomer to the market: Wilhelm Schroder, or Wilesco. They didn't begin producing their own steam engines until around 1950. Prior to this, they produced model steam engine parts under subcontract to Fleischmann in the 1930's. While live model steam engines were still being made in quantity in the 1960’s, the elaborate artwork had given way to austerity, in deference to the declining market. By the 1970's, Marklin and Fleischmann had dropped out, leaving only Jensen, Mamod and Wilesco as major makers of live steam models. In the post WW2 era, steam had been supplanted by the internal combustion engine, gas turbine and nuclear reactor as the power source of the future, while motion pictures and television replaced models as a primary teaching and reference tool. And so, the interest in expensive mechanical renderings of the last century's motive power also became extinct.