Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Lessons from York -- What we saw: echoes of youth

Dad and I recently returned from our semi-annual trip to the Train Collectors Association (TCA) Eastern Division toy train meet in York, PA. This is the largest such show in the United States and provides an interesting snapshot of the state of the hobby.

It can also hint at the current state of collecting in general. As is our tradition, we spent a lot of time discussing what we saw a lot of (and what we didn't) -- and more importantly, the reasons behind them.

There's been a definite demographic shift in the hobby,  and I suspect it parallels those of similar hobbies. For toys especially, nostalgia plays a major role. For the most part, collectors are looking to either replace what they had in their youth (usually pre-teen) or finally acquire those items they wanted but never got during that time.

As the population ages, the window of peak desirability moves with it. When the Train Collectors Association first formed in 1954, the founding members were most interested in the toys of their youth -- about 1900 to 1920. That corresponded nicely to the beginnings of electric toy trains (Lionel was founded around 1900), and so for a while toy trains of that era were the most desirable. By 1964, the focus had started to shift into the between-war years. When my Dad joined in the early 1970's he was most interested in the trains of the early 1930's.

What we saw the most of tended to follow that pattern.

It was always easy to find parts of this set on a vendor table.
But the whole thing intact and with the original box? That
was something that only happened at this show.
Marx marks the spot

This time around we saw plenty of Marx toy train sets in the box. Now that's actually quite remarkable. Lionel and American Flyer electric trains were often used as Christmas decorations. Set them up under the tree, pack them away with the rest of the ornaments. Many were packed back in their set boxes. They were handled carefully, so it's relatively easy to find Lionel and American Flyer sets in good condition.

Marx lithographed tin trains were a different story. They were always meant to the be a low-cost alternative, and as such were usually treated as everyday toys. If you were going to build a permanent train layout, you went with Lionel or American Flyer equipment -- the trains were very realistic and ran reliably. Marx trains with their bright colors and (mostly) unrealistic designs were seldom anyone's choice.

Marx trains were rarely anyone's Christmas train, and so rather than being brought out for the holidays, they were played with year round. There wasn't any need to keep the set box -- many Marx trains ended up in the toy box with the rest of the child's playthings.

Finding vintage Marx is good condition can be something of a challenge, but not impossible. And because Marx trains weren't sought after by many collectors, the prices remained low -- until now.

My theory is that the plethora of Marx train sets in their original boxes is due to two things. The first is the recent emergence of new old stock from dime stores, department stores, and drug stores. I'm not sure if this is inventory discovered when a building is renovated, or what -- but it's increasingly easy to find new old stock toys from the late 1950's through the mid-1960s.

The second is that the population has aged. The majority of collectors now have found memories of those Marx trains that were probably thrown out years ago with the other broken toys. Prices weren't astronomical (around the $100-$200), but they did show an increased interest in what were formerly considered disposable toys.

There were many different configurations of this set made
between 1959-1962. I think I saw at least one example
of each at this show.

Lionel General Sets

We also saw a lot of General box sets. In 1959 Lionel brought out "The General," an 1860's-style locomotive. The locomotive was offered in a variety of sets, including an inexpensive set with a passenger car and a mail car (I actually received one from Santa), a larger set with a horse car, and some other variations as well. The sets were offered through 1962.

Many vendors had General sets on their tables, most in very good condition. I'm not sure where they all came from, but I know why they were there. The pre-teen boys who looking longingly at them in the Lionel catalogs of that era were now roaming the halls of the York Fairgrounds with plenty of disposable cash.

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