American Flyer MFG Co., est. 1907

American Flyer Locomotive 1930

Museum Artifact: Cast Iron Locomotive No. 3195, c. 1930

Made by: American Flyer MFG Co., 2229 S. Halsted St., Chicago, IL [Pilsen]

There’s something inherently sad about a solitary steam engine—even a toy one. With no tender, it has no imaginary fuel, and with no boxcars, it serves no imaginary purpose. Our particular locomotive doesn’t even have a lonesome whistle to blow. Still, if we’re talking about the American Flyer Manufacturing Company at the dawning of the Great Depression, we couldn’t really have found a better representative from their catalog.

[Cover of the 1930 American Flyer catalog, often marketed as “The Toy for the Boy”]

Financially speaking, the golden age of American Flyer probably began in 1938, when the famed toy magnate A. C. Gilbert bought the company and moved it from Chicago to New Haven, Connecticut. Gilbert, a former Olympic pole vaulter and professional magician, had made his toymaking fortune as the inventor of the Erector Set two decades prior. Now, as the new boss of American Flyer, the distinguished Renaissance Man would help roll out many of the brand’s most iconic designs during the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. Collectors call it the “post-war era,” but unfortunately for our purposes, it could also be called “post-Chicago.”

We’ll leave it to the Made-in-New-Haven Museum to tell the tale of A. C. Gilbert’s American Flyer. Our focus, instead, is the first 30 years, aka “Pre-War,” when a humble Chicago company helped plot the course of the 20th century model train phenomenon.

Pre-War (as in, World War I)

The Chicago portion of the American Flyer saga begins with a toymaker named William Hafner. For the first decade of the 20th century, Hafner was trying to carve a niche for himself as a builder of miniature clockwork / wind-up automobiles and trains, first under the Toy Auto Company name, then the W. F. Hafner Company, both at 9 South Canal Street. He was consistently outclassed, however, by imported German models and the top American competitor—the Ives Manufacturing Company of Connecticut.

In 1907, hoping to step up his game, Hafner partnered with a well-to-do friend named William Ogden Coleman—president of the Burley & Tyrrell Co., a china and glassware importer. According to some versions of the tale, Hafner may have owed Coleman some money from earlier unknown dealings, and rather than funnel his meager train earnings into debt repayment, he proposed a new arrangement.

Going forward, Hafner would give Coleman a controlling interest in his toy line, if Coleman merely lent him some manufacturing space. “Once I get production up, I can get distribution from Montgomery Ward, and we’ll be off and running!”

Maybe it wasn’t the most wildly convincing proposal in the world, but timing wise, it was fortuitous. A year or two earlier, W. O. Coleman had acquired a struggling Chicago hardware business, the Edmonds-Metzel MFG Co., which had an established factory at what is now 2609 W. Wilcox Avenue. It wouldn’t require much effort to add a small toy production line to the plant.

[1905 ad for the Edmonds-Metzel MFG Co., which would later birth American Flyer]

Coleman, himself, had no interest or time to commit to toy trains, but he was willing to take on Hafner as a low risk / high reward investment. He was basically telling Hafner, “I’m gonna leave you to it. Show me what you can do.”

Once the ink had dried, a decision was also reached to re-brand the model trains, not under the established Hafner name, but with an identity more befitting the times; something patriotic and appealing to a target demographic of ambitious young boys.

And so the “American Flyer” line was born, initially as a brand only, with production still credited to the Edmonds-Metzel MFG Company. It didn’t take long, however, for Hafner’s little toy operation to start eclipsing the primary hardware business going on around it.

[A rare 1908 American Flyer train set still showing the Edmonds-Metzel MFG Co. name, courtesy of the Fairchild Collection]

“The best Christmas present for the children is an American Flyer miniature train,” claimed a 1910 advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post. “American Flyer engines are cast iron—not tin—and are modeled after the big engines you see on the most up-to-date railroads. The best quality springs, not the breakable kind, are used and they will stand the roughest kind of usage. . . The cars are all American models, beautifully painted and decorated in bright colors baked on so hard that even the baby can’t get them off.”

There were only about a dozen workers assembling the entire American Flyer line-up in 1910, but William Hafner was delivering on his promise, as listings in the mail order catalogs of Montgomery Ward (among others) enabled AF’s budget-priced “O-gauge” train sets to make up ground on the industry leader, Ives, and an emerging competitor, Lionel.

During this same period, a fire at the Edmonds-Metzel plant had forced William Coleman to re-assess his various properties, and the decision was made to scrap the old hardware business entirely. Moving into to a shared plant at 1920 West Kinzie Street, the train operation was officially re-organized as the American Flyer Manufacturing Company in 1910, with Hafner as vice president and Coleman as president.

Within another few years, American Flyer was already outgrowing the Kinzie plant and looking to expand significantly. Sales were strong and competing German imports were weakening as the Great War began overseas. Hafner and Coleman should have been enjoying the spoils of their profitable partnership. But, as often happens in these situations, fast success only seemed to escalate the disharmony within the company hierarchy, as the usual mix of pride, greed, and philosophical differences gradually poisoned the stew.

As the owner of the business, William Ogden Coleman was the biggest beneficiary of its ascendence. “And why not?” he might have said. “I had the wisdom to make the investment.”

William Hafner, meanwhile, was still the architect of the American Flyer brand, and as such, may have begun to see Mr. Coleman as more of hindrance than a help as time went on. Beyond serving as the company’s creative force, Hafner supposedly wanted more say in how it was operated and, understandably, a bigger salary to go with it. A classic power play was afoot.

[American Flyer ads promoting appearances and upcoming toy fairs in 1915, the company’s first year without co-founder William Hafner]

Split Switch

If toy train A is traveling east at 60 mph, and toy train B is traveling west at 45 mph, how much money will toy train A be willing to share with toy train B when their business partnership becomes successful? The answer: Not enough.

Hafner Overland FlyerWhen Coleman balked at giving Hafner a bigger share of the company—and instead seemed to be considering his son, William Ogden Coleman Jr., for a leadership position—an annoyed Hafner took drastic action. He cut bait entirely and went back to the independent ranks, starting up his own toy train company while leaving all his old designs and patents behind.

The Hafner Manufacturing Co. launched in 1914 and would survive until 1951—but it was always a bit of an also-ran in the industry, sticking with the same basic clockwork designs at cheap prices.

From the looks of it, the Coleman-Hafner break-up played out much like a real divorce, as Coleman moved American Flyer to a glorious new factory at 2229 S. Halsted Street in Pilsen [pictured below], while leaving Hafner the keys to their old home. For its first few years, Hafner MFG was listed at 400 N. Lincoln St., which is modern day Wolcott Ave, on the intersection of Kinzie Street—i.e., the former American Flyer plant.

[Artist rendering of the American Flyer factory in Pilsen, 2229 S. Halsted Street, which opened in January of 1915. Courtesy of Fairchild Collection.]

Just four years after that drama played out, William Ogden Coleman, Sr. died of a heart attack at 54, putting the company in the hands of his 26 year-old son W. O. Coleman, Jr.—who’d already been serving as American Flyer’s president since graduating college.

Junior preferred the mechanics of the model train business to the relative dullness of his dad’s chinaware company anyway, and as a result, Burley and Tyrrell was promptly sold off to Albert Pick & Co., leaving American Flyer as the new central focus of the Coleman family business.

Coleman, Jr., while green, was a well liked young executive who immediately ushered in American Flyer’s entry into the electric railroad era in 1918. This was an enormous shift in the industry for obvious reasons, as child conductors (the ones from wealthy enough families, at least) could now watch their choo choos tear around the track for hours without having to stop and re-wind them.

Along with a team of increasingly skilled electricians and engineers, Coleman was aided by some other capable leaders, as well, including his cousin / superintendent Harry Becker and a couple ace sales managers named Roy and Herman Mack.

“The Mack Brothers In Charge”

Just about any version you find of the American Flyer story includes the names of William Ogden Coleman (father and son), William Hafner, and A.C. Gilbert. But the Mack Brothers, for whatever reason, are rarely discussed in any detail. You can only find hints of just how significant they were in keeping the company afloat and moving forward in the years following the double-whammy of Hafner’s departure and Coleman Sr.’s death.

Herman MackHerman F. Mack (1872-1957) and his little brother Roy (1885-1945) were first generation Americans of German stock. They were both born in Appleton, Wisconsin, with the original surname “Knitt.” After Herman moved to Chicago and got work in a bicycle factory in the 1890s, he met and married a gal named Mary Mack, and for unknown reasons, eventually adopted her last name in place of his own in the 1910s. Maybe he was super progressive, or more likely, as a traveling salesman during World War I, he found it beneficial to conceal his German roots (he was NOT, incidentally, the same Herman Mack who ran the Lexington Hotel in Chicago during this same period).

When kid brother Roy moved to the city and joined Herman, he dutifully changed his name, as well, and the “Mack Brothers” were soon employed as William Coleman Jr.’s trusted sales department heads, and ostensibly the public faces of the American Flyer brand during its golden years in Chicago.

Besides traveling around the world as A.F. ambassadors in the ’20s, the Macks also represented the company at numerous stateside toy fairs and conventions, often meeting directly with rowdy crowds of train-obsessed railway children. Advertisements for these events would routinely say, quite directly: “As usual, the Mack Brothers will be in charge.” A 1921 ad in the brothers’ hometown paper, the Appleton Post-Crescent, suggests even greater involvement in the product: “It might interest you to know that these, America’s best toy trains, are made by a former Appleton man, Mr. Herman Mack.”

The Macks had some good fortune on their side; showing off new electric trains and taking over marketshare in a post-war bull market wasn’t too much of a chore. But they eclipsed expectations, nonetheless. In the ’20s, American Flyer routinely sold over half a million trains per year, and the Pilsen factory grew to employ over 150 workers.

At the peak of this era, Coleman, Jr. and the Mack Brothers felt confident enough to set their sights on the leaders of the pack, Lionel. In 1925, American Flyer introduced new “wide gauge” sizing to compete with Lionel’s trendy “standard gauge.” Three years later, they even joined forces with Lionel for a brief period, as the two companies pounced on a bankrupt Ives MFG Co.—the fallen, former giant of the industry—and split ownership of the Ives inventory until 1930.

With the collapse of the stock market, however, such honor among thieves was quickly out the window.

[The Chicago team of American Flyer, in happier times]

The “Toy for the Boy” Grows Up

Sales had already started to slow at American Flyer during the Ives take-over, and as the Depression set in, W.O. Coleman, Jr. was forced to make sweeping cuts to staff and materials. As a particular blow, the Mack Brothers were either let go or jumped ship, eventually landing with the Hafner MFG Co., to add insult to injury (weirdly, a company called “Mack Brothers” also surfaced at 2041 W. Chicago Avenue and would go on to offer repair services on model railroads and other electronics for decades, but it was led by a John Edward Mack, no relation). American Flyer was also forced to sell its Ives holdings to Lionel, sending Coleman back to the drawing board as the 1930s loomed.

To expand sales, American Flyer could have gone back to targeting both girls and boys, as they’d done when Hafner was still on the team. But rather than imagine any young lady taking interest in anything motor oriented, the company instead looked at its own 20+ year history and decided to reach out to its older audience, i.e., the boys of the past.

“Let your Dad, or your Uncle, in on your plans,” the 1933 catalog suggested to its young readers. “Show them this catalog, and the illustration of the model you desire. They’ll have as much fun running the train as you will.”

The 1935 catalog went further: “Many boys who are now grown up received their first lessons in management, electricity, engineering, and resourcefulness through the operation of their American Flyer trains. That’s why it’s so important that you should have the most advanced and best equipped train made.”

With a shift to a wider, more adult audience, realism also became increasingly important, leading to the creation of die-cast engines that attempted to mimic every detail of modern, real-life locomotives. Older audiences also meant a new emphasis on the nostalgia dollar.

And so, in 1930, American Flyer created its first steam engine in six years, the No. 3195, which is the same one sitting forlornly in our museum collection.

This is a classic O-gauge (rather than wide) model made of heavy-duty cast-iron (rather than zinc die-cast). It was far more like a proper model than a mere toy—and its look harks back in a way to William Hafner’s earliest locomotive designs. With a ringing bell, functioning headlight, and remote control, though, it was still tricked out enough to impress the kids.

The #3195 loco really did come along at an undeniable crossroads (pun intended) in American Flyer’s history. On one hand, it was a return to form—cast-iron, steam, O-gauge, old-school, weighty and sophisticated. On the other, it was the last gasp of a bygone era. By 1932, A. F. had abandoned cast iron for good and transitioned fully to cheaper sheet metal and die-casting. Stylistically, they also responded to the country’s growing fascination with new “Streamliner” trains (like the famed California Zephyr) by focusing almost all their attention to that trend in the midst of the Depression.

In 1936, American Flyer’s general manager James E. Cuff told the Tribune that “installation of streamliners by the railroads has resulted in a sharp revival of interest in model trains,” and that streamliner sales now accounted for 90% of AF’s business, with old style steam locos pushed to the back room. Sales were good, but on the down side, the company had to invest in the installation of new equipment to manufacture the new deco-tastic trains. In the economic realities of the time, it was a death blow disguised as a comeback.

By 1938, Coleman, Jr. had finally seen enough. He sold the business to A.C. Gilbert and closed the Pilsen factory for good.

That once bustling plant, which you might call a miniature version of the Pullman Works, is still standing today, just off the Dan Ryan Expressway. Its seven story height, however, has since been reduced to three after taking on fire damage in the 1950s. The building was purchased by a real estate firm in 2009 for just $2.6 million, then sold in 2017 to SEIU Healthcare for a sweet $17.7 million. It’s highly unlikely, after 80 years, that any recognizable remnants of the old American Flyer operation have been preserved therein.

[The former American Flyer plant at 2229 S. Halsted St., still standing, albeit at half the height]

[Early Gilbert era American Flyer ad one year after move to New Haven, CT, 1939]

Sources:

“The Colemans and American Flyer,” by Hilly Lazarus, 1985

American Flyer catalogs: 1933, 1935, 1936

“New Trains Lead in Demand for Christmas Toys” – Chicago Tribune, Dec 14, 1936

Antique Trader

Classic Toy Trains

Train Collectors Association

 

Archived Reader Comments:

“The photo of the locomotives being assembled is not in Chicago but rather after A.C. Gilbert shifted production to New Haven.  The 3/16” Scale Atlantic locomotives may have been designed in Chicago but they were tooled and produced in New Haven.  They were at first  three rail “O” gauge and after the war they were modified for two rail “S” Scale gauge.” —Charles Vik, 2019

“As someone who knows this stuff like the palm of my hand, this article is astonishingly accurate. 
What is standard in such journalism is usually. flowery irrelevance: the writer attempting to showcase their “skill” at the expense of the story. This was well done. One thing that I would add is that to the advanced collector, the most desirable of all Flyer trains are the earliest Chicago, or “Metzel”, trains, not the stuff that came after.” —Umoja, 2019

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