14 November 2012
As Vectis Auctions prepares to sell a collection of Lehmann toys, Eric Bryan remembers the German model maker. ...
Founded in 1881 in Brandenburg, Germany by Ernst Paul Lehmann, the Lehmann Company is renowned for its detailed and brightly lithographed mechanical tin toys. Lehmann began to see great success in the early 20th century when its sophisticated, lightweight tin toys were recognized as innovations next to the blocky iron toys of most other makers. One of Lehmann’s advances was the patenting of the locking mechanism for clockwork motors.
Lehmann’s breakthrough with tin toys had a threefold advantage:
• The toys’ lightness made them easier to handle and play with than heavy iron toys
• The detailed and brightly coloured lithographing of the tin toys wasn’t possible with iron toys
• The tin toys were cheaper than iron toys
Lehmann made many tin toy sets with human or animal figures. The human figures included skiers, car drivers, chair carries with passenger, and tap dancers. Amongst the animal figures were donkeys, mules, ostriches, and zebras. The company gave all of its toys individual names, which were often embossed on the product itself. The toys were also embossed with Lehmann’s trademark, ‘EPL’ or simply ‘e’.
In 1921, Lehmann’s cousin Johannes Richter joined the firm and helped to continue the Lehmann tradition of innovation with the Skirolf Skier and various cleverly devised toys. Other famous Lehmann tin toys included the Ikarus airplane and the Tut Tut car, complete with honking horn.
During the 1920s the firm manufactured more than 100 different toy models and employed over 800 workers. The toys were exported around the world with German-English instructions. The process of lithographing the tinplate was replaced with spray painting, then baking at 120 degrees to create an even enamelled surface.
With the passing of Ernst Lehmann in 1934, Richter continued to run the company on his own. Though Lehmann struggled with metal shortages during World War II, they continued to function at reduced capacity. Remarkably, Lehmann not only escaped giving over its production to the war effort, but successfully opposed requests to manufacture politically endorsed military-themed toys.
After the war, the country was split into the German Democratic Republic, and the Federal Republic of Germany (East and West Germany, respectively). Since Brandenburg was in East Germany, it fell under control of the Soviet occupation, and the Lehmann Company with it. In 1948, Richter was denounced as a war criminal and racketeer and was removed from Lehmann’s by the Soviets with no recompense or recourse.
The occupiers nationalised Lehmann’s and placed it under the name of VEB Mechanischne Speilwaren, and it was considered East Germany’s foremost tin toy maker. After the 1948 seizure, Richter escaped to Nuremberg in West Germany. The Richter family established a new toy company in a modest back garden workshop in 1950 until his death in 1956.
The family built a new factory under the Lehmann name in 1959 outside Nuremberg. As the popularity of tin toys decreased, the new company focused on plastic toys, while they resumed some of their most favoured tin lines into the 1970s. In 1968, Richter’s sons introduced the LGB brand--Lehmann Gross Bahn or Big Railway—G scale model trains and railroads. LGB’s weather-resistant sets created a resurgence in garden railway modelling.
In the 1980s, LGB began to expand into the US with a California based warranty and repair facility. The company introduced its LGB Multi-Train System in the 1990s, a digital program that coordinated several trains to run on one track simultaneously. In this decade, LGB also established a distribution centre in New Jersey.
As the 2000s dawned, LGB developed a digital decoding system for its locomotives, enabling them to operate on either analogue or digital sets without conversions.
LGB celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2006 by issuing more than 200 products including an Amtrak line, variously themed rolling stock, and nickel-plated track. In the same year, American LGB spun off into a separate company, while LGB in Germany declared bankruptcy. Märklin bought the firm in 2007, and continued the LGB brand. In 2009, despite Märklin entering receivership, they began to distribute LGB products in the US through the Walthers Company.