Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Puff, Puff, Puffing Along
QUESTION: I’m an engineer who has recently retired. Not long ago, I saw some steam-powered toys on display at a local antique show. The dealer couldn’t tell me much about them except that they were produced in the latter part of the 19th century. I’m fascinated with these toys and would like to start a collection. What can you tell me about them?
ANSWER: Live steam-driven toys have always fascinated young boys and men. It’s probably because of the power they produce and that they’re often so close to the original devices that use steam power to operate.
The use of steam as a power source dates from the early 1840s. By the mid-19th century, steam-powered toys began to appear. Craftsmen hand built toy steam engines for the first 50 years or so and definitely for those who could afford their high price tag. Cheaper models began to appear in the 1870s. By that time, makers constructed stationary engines with the boiler in either a vertical or horizontal position, although the functions of each were essentially the same. The vertical model fit into a smaller space while the horizontal model allowed greater size and power. Though toy engines were often faithful duplicates of the real thing, they rarely had the detail of true scale models.
Such famous toy makers as Bing, Doll and Marklin produced steam-powered toys in Germany. The British manufactured some beautiful examples under the label of Bassett-Lowke. In America, Eugene Beggs of Paterson, New Jersey turned out these mechanical wonders from the 1870s to about 1900 in competition with the famous Ives company of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The best known of all the American firms was the
Weeden Manufacturing Company which manufactured steam-powered toys from 1883 to 1930 in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Other manufacturers included Mamod, Wilesco, Cheddar, Krick, Tucher & Walther, Hermann Bohm, and Blechspielzeug.
The boiler of a steam toy had to be carefully filled with mineral-free water, often from a rainwater barrel. Most of the burners or lamps used alcohol as fuel although manufacturers advertised a few that burned kerosene.
Both substances were highly flammable but not explosive in the open air. Once the user lit the burner and shoved it into place beneath the boiler, it was just a matter of waiting while steam formed in the boiler and pressure gradually increased. When steamed up, the throttle opened, wheels began to spin, and pulleys operated the accessories. And, of course, every steam engine came with a whistle.
Steam-powered trains were a bit more complicated. Many became known as "dribblers" because water often leaked from the boiler. Though the user set a throttle in advance, there was tittle or no speed control once the locomotive got under way. Once steam had built up, the user set the train on the tracks and let it go until the fuel and water ran out. Often the engine would fly off the rails on a tight curve, spilling the water and burning alcohol. Makers advertised these trains as “safe” toys, since they rarely blew up unless an ingenious boy locked down the safety valve. However, the engines got very hot, enough to produce a nasty burn. Since boys often set up these trains on their mom’s carpet, a derailment and spill often resulted in a good scolding.
Steam-powered boats, on the other hand, were graceful toys, often beautifully constructed of brass. Manufacturers built them around a horizontal boiler with a burner beneath. Steam traveled through a pipe to a cylinder and piston which operated the propeller shaft. An adjustable ruder provided some control but there was always a risk of losing the boat once it got under way. Boys could purchase flimsy tinplate steam motorboats in dime and novelty stores. This toy had a burner and boiler but no cylinder. The steam traveled directly to the stern of the boat and exhausted underwater, propelling the boat until all the steam was used up. Boys called them "put-puts while they referred to more elaborate models as propellers.
By 1886, a boys could purchase a toy steam engine with a vertical boiler from Montgomery Ward for 40 cents plus a nickel for postage. Larger horizontal engines with a walking beam and a flywheel sold for $2. From the same catalog, boys could order a toy steamboat in the 9-inch size packed in a "neat wooden box" for $1.25 or a 13-inch model which ran about 20 minutes for $2.60. In 1888, Ladies' Home Journal provided a Weeden upright steam engine made from 41 pieces at no cost with a subscription. Or the lucky young person could buy an 11-inch steamboat directly from the magazine for $1.50 postpaid.
The British firm of Bassett-Lowke also produced model steam locomotives. One gauge available was 1 1/2-inch, which was close to the present "0" gauge while others came in a gauge twice as wide. The models ranged from stubby switchers to scale versions of famous locomotives. In 1902 this firm also offered an elaborate model steam fire engine, as well as a tractor roller, several cranes, and two models of motor cars, all steam powered.
The early 20th century brought little change in the design and appearance of steam-powered toys. One major innovation was the introduction of electricity as a heat source. As household electricity became more prevalent, the stationary steam engine gradually switched from alcohol burners to electric heating elements. A Weeder model in 1930 came with a 110-volt heating element. The company still made alcohol-burning versions and one hybrid was available with either a two-burner alcohol stove or an electric heater.
Today, some models, such as the 1909 Marklin steam-powered boat, sell at auction for thousands of dollars, putting many steam-powered toys out of reach of many collectors.