Ives Toys & Trains

An Ives dancing monkey clockwork toy

p4A ItemID F7963450
An Ives Black Preacher At The Pulpit Wind-Up Toy

p4A ItemID F7952502
An Ives, Blakeslee & Co. fur covered clockwork mechanical bear toy with box

p4A ItemID F7948174
An Ives, Blakeslee & Co. fur-covered clockwork mechanical bear toy with original box

p4A ItemID F7948163

Ives Toys & Trains

Arguably the premier toy manufacturer of it’s time, The Ives Manufacturing Company started from humble beginnings. Edward Ives founded the company in a small shack in Plymouth Connecticut around 1868. Originally working under the name Ives, Blakeslee & Co. The first items built were hot air toys, but the toy line soon progressed to a wide range of toys, that included cannons using real gunpowder and clockwork powered dolls and animals that moved. By 1878 Ives clockworks were considered the finest on the market.

The Ives catalogs of the 1880′s were comprised of pure Ives products plus those of other manufacturers. During the nineteenth century virtually all the Ives business was wholesale in nature, their catalogs were directed towards retailers and usually showed prices by the dozen. However, during this period, as was the custom of all the large toy wholesalers on the East Coast, Ives did open their sales rooms to the general public for retail sales just prior to Christmas.

As Ives grew during the latter part of the nineteenth century the manufacturing emphasis shifted to trains. Ives’s trains were made of tin or cast iron and powered by clockwork. The largest of the big tin Ives clockwork locomotives was an 18 inch beauty appropriately named Giant. This top-of-the-line model was renamed Grand Duke sometime after the 1870 American visit of Grand Duke Alexis of Russia.

During the 1890′s Ives introduced some of their most memorable mechanical toys and locomotives. Edward Ives had invented a tin wind-up locomotive that actually would puff a lighted cigarette concealed in its smokestack, giving the appearance of being under a full head of steam. Another Ives innovation was a clockwork locomotive that would detonate a cap on impact and actually ‘explode’ into several pieces. Besides the tin clockworks that Ives was most famous for they sold an extensive line of cast iron pull toys and walking figures that included some remarkable animal figures. It was during this period that Harry Ives started his tenure with the family business. Ives began to experience financial problems around 1897 and had to re-organize on a smaller level. They were actually aided in 1900 by a fierce fire in the main factory that destroyed all the tooling. With new capital from the insurance settlement Ives was able to re-invent itself. They retooled, moved into a new factory and concentrated on clockwork trains that ran on tracks. The new factory and the business that was to rise from the ashes of this terrible fire became the Ives Manufacturing Company, an icon in the Toy train market of the day and to train collectors of our day.

For the first 10 years Ives remained totally clockwork. Although several companies were selling electric trains at the time, Ives elected to stay with what it knew – clockwork mechanisms. At this period of time most American homes were still without electricity and the battery technology that existed at the time could be called less than convenient! Ives promoted their trains to young boys by making them ‘Managers’ of their own version of “The Ives Miniature Railway System”. The young boy, along with his advisory board (Mom and Dad), was given the responsibility of keeping up their passenger and freight service to a high standard of efficiency.

When Ives came out with their first electric trains in 1910, the catalog addressed the “Division Manager of “The Ives Miniature Railway System”, advising him that “his railroad should be managed just like the big ones. The responsibility for the successful operation of the Ives Miniature Railway depends upon you the manager.” The move into electricity has been attributed to several factors: the immergence of American Flyer and other toy train companies into the clockwork market and the success of Lionel which had introduced their electric trains into the American market in 1901.

Ives’s train sales continued to decline in the face of increasing foreign competition and the fast charging Lionel, the latter having entered the O gauge market with electric trains in 1915. Meanwhile, construction toys were gaining in popularity, so in an effort to re-diversify, Ives released an Erector Set-like construction toy in 1913, called Structiron. Although it offered parts its competition did not, the set was not very successful and Ives withdrew it from the market in 1917. Another innovative product that was at least illustrated in the 1915 catalog was a voice-activated device that would stop and re-start the train. It looked like an old phone that activated a magnet ‘on sound’ and interrupted the flow of electricity to the train. Whether it was too expensive to produce or too unreliable – it doesn’t appear many, if any, were sold, but it was clearly an idea before it’s time.

World War I had mixed affects on the company. On one hand, it eliminated imports from Germany, increasing Ives’s share of the market, but it also eliminated Ives’s sources of lithography inks. Most of the vibrant colors associated with ‘early Ives’ were in part due to the colorful inks that the Germans provided. There was a period of time when Ives was unable to obtain any ink and resorted to painting some of their beautiful models until new ink suppliers could be found. Many historians feel their Connecticut location made it difficult to bring in the materials it needed to make trains, and also made shipping finished products difficult. Lionel and American Flyer, being headquartered in New York City and Chicago, respectively, did not face that challenge. Whatever the reason, Ives did not gain any of the lucrative wartime government manufacturing contracts as some of the other manufacturers did and didn’t benefit financially from the war.

After the war, Ives, along with competitors Lionel and American Flyer, lobbied successfully for protective tariffs to promote the fledgling American toy train industry. They formed the Toy MFRS. USA, whose logo appears on numerous toy boxes produced from 1918 to 1920.

The seasonal nature of train sales continued to cause concern for Ives, so they again sought to diversify by selling toy boats, which they hoped would support the company through strong summer sales. The first boats were powered by a clockwork engine from an Ives O gauge locomotive and were released in 1917. However, the designs were unrealistic looking, lacked the costly detail that was the highlight of competing German designs, and had a tendency to sink easily. Additionally, since Ives did not use a primer when painting the boats, the paint easily flaked off. Ives had difficulty adapting its methods for designing and building trains to work for boats. Despite these problems, Ives continued producing the boats until 1928. One story that has been passed down from collectors for many years is that Harry Ives, now president of Ives, had a good friendship with Edward Hurley, then chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board. The story goes that Harry kept the boats in production for many years, even though unprofitable, to help promote the shipping industry and the recruitment of boys as merchant marines. The story is probably nothing more than an ‘Urban Legend’ and few Ives boats exist today. Whether this is due to lack of popularity or their propensity to sink is unknown.

Once the Germans were out of the picture Ives and Lionel became direct competitors for the American market and began direct criticism of each other through catalogs and advertisements. Lionel criticized the quality of Ives’s trains in various advertisements, calling its cars flimsy and showing a cast-iron Ives locomotive shattering to pieces when dropped from a table, while a Lionel locomotive dropped from the same height would survive with only dents. Other ads criticizing Ives’s quality appeared, but they always compared an Ives low-end engine with Lionel’s most expensive piece. Ives had long used high quality lithography to detail their cars, making these pieces much more realistic than Lionel’s brightly painted cars, but Lionel, taking a cue from Ives, targeted advertising straight at children that claimed its cars were the most realistic and that its paint jobs were more durable.

Ives’ made little attempt to respond to Lionel’s claims, calling its competitors imitators whose technology was behind the times. This aloof approach was no match for Lionel’s bold and brash ads. Additionally, Lionel’s trains generally were priced lower, or, in instances where their price was comparable to Ives, they were larger, making them appear to be a better value for the money. As a result, Lionel continually gained ground on Ives, finally overtaking them in sales in 1924.

Until the 1920′s Ives and most of the other American toy train manufacturers used One Gauge to represent their biggest and finest trains. This was the same gauge that German manufacturers had brought to the states and until then everyone had been competing with the Germans. By the end of World War I, Lionel was becoming the dominant force in the toy train market with its ‘all American’ Standard Gauge size which they had introduced 15 years earlier. In 1921 Ives abruptly discontinued its slow-selling 1 gauge trains in favor of wide gauge trains. Ives did not call its trains Standard Gauge, as Lionel had trademarked that term. While Ives was inconsistent in what it called its larger-gauge trains, it most frequently called it wide gauge or 2 gauge. Numerous other companies also entered the wide gauge market in the early 1920′s; with Lionel’s slightly wider track now becoming the gauge of choice, everyone wanted to make it the ‘standard’.

In 1924, Ives became the first major toy train company to make an engine with a remotely activated reverse unit, a feature that Lionel would not offer for another two years. Other toy train companies quickly tried to imitate the Ives reverse, but none could reproduce the smooth operation of the Ives ‘R’ unit, which had a neutral position for easy transition from forward to reverse and back.

The introduction of the automatic reversing unit and other steps to copy the success of the now more profitable Lionel were not enough to stop the deteriorating financial situation in which Ives found themselves during the middle 1920′s. Ives was losing money! Whether, as some collectors like to believe, it was because of their better quality and refusal to raise prices, or because of their inability to match the more efficient manufacturing techniques of competitors will always be speculation. The situation was made worse by Ives’s attempts to compete at the low end of the market, where, unlike its competition, it sold its entry-level models at a loss. If Ives’s low-end products were higher quality than its competitors, it was the customers, not the company, who benefited.

In 1927 Ives re-organized. Harry Ives relinquished the presidency and became chairman of the board and Charles R. Johnson was brought in as the company’s new president. New management did little to stop the downward slide and Ives’s largest creditor, Blanchard Publishing, sued in 1928. Ives filed voluntary bankruptcy on July 7th 1928, reporting liabilities of $188,303.25. As Ives already had $245,000 in Christmas sales lined up, Johnson petitioned for a private sale and a quick settlement. The motion for a private sale to a company called the Risdon Manufacturing Company was denied and a public sale was held on July 31st, 1928.

Mandel Frankel represented Lionel and American Flyer at this sale and successfully bid $73,250 for the stock, fixtures and plant. The low price in comparison to the company sales was presumably due to liens on Ives’s assets. Lionel and Flyer then operated Ives as a joint venture, naming the new company ‘The Ives Corp’, and retaining Johnson and Harry Ives as president and chairman, respectively. Harry eventually left the company in September 1929 and not long after that Lionel bought out the American Flyer interest in the company and took over complete ownership.

In 1928 Ives’s new owners discontinued the toy boats and much of Ives’ train product line was replaced with trains that contained a hybrid of parts from both American Flyer and Lionel. Although the Ives’s designs were arguably more realistic, Flyer and Lionel parts were used for several reasons. When Lionel and American Flyer bought Ives, they did not buy the factory or tooling, which they then had to rent. It may have been less expensive for the parent companies to supply their own parts than to rent the old Ives tooling. Some historians have speculated that the Ives tooling was worn out and no longer suitable for use. A third factor was that Lionel’s and Flyer’s manufacturing process was less labor intensive, which made their designs less expensive to manufacture than the Ives designs they replaced.

Some notable exceptions were the new die cast locomotives in wide gauge and O gauge, plus the tenders that went with them. Ives had completed the tooling for these new die-cast steam engines prior to the American Flyer / Lionel buy out. Shipment of these casting had been held up with the bankruptcy. The Ives new 4-4-2 steam engines were modeled after the President Washington class prototypes used on the B & O railroad. The Wide gauge 1134 model was the top-of-the-line model in the Ives catalog from 1928 to 1930. It was also fitted with an American Flyer motor and sold with several Flyer sets in 1928. AF numbered these 4694 when fitted with the automatic reversing unit and 4660 with a hand reverse. In 1929, The Ives Corp. sold this same casting to Dorfan, who used it to head several of its top Wide Gauge sets. The O Gauge version of this steamer was the 1122 and it was first cataloged in 1929. Besides heading the top of the line O gauge sets in the 1929 and 1930 Ives catalog, some of these O gauge castings were also sold to Dorfan in 1929 and on rare occasions can be found with Dorfan decals. The die cast tender used with the wide gauge 1134 was used with several Lionel steam engines right up until the middle 1930′s.

In 1930, under total Lionel ownership, the Ives factory in Connecticut was closed and operation were moved to Lionel’s New Jersey factory. Lionel kept the Ives brand on the market through 1932. Although all the trains were totally Lionel with Ives plates and stampings, they did maintain a separate catalog and at least the pretense of it being an independent company. In 1933 Lionel folded what was left of the Ives catalog into its own product line, branding its entry-level trains as Lionel-Ives. In 1934 Lionel dropped the Ives name altogether renaming the small clockwork and electric trains that had carried the Ives name as ‘Lionel Jr.’. The Lionel Jr. line was the genesis of what was to become what we know today as the 0-27 line of trains.

Lionel retained the rights to the Ives name right up until the 1950′s, even though the name was not used on anything except the metal connectors used to hold down Lionel track. Today the Ives name is owned by MTH trains, who regularly reproduce some of the old classic models.

Reference note by p4A Contributing Editor Dave McEntarfer.

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