Meccano in America

From The Brighton Toy and Model Index

After founding Meccano Ltd. in the UK, the three main "colonies" of the Meccano Empire worldwide were going to be France, Germany and the United States of America. Frank Hornby registered the Meccano trademark in the US in 1908, is supposed to have started importing Meccano into the States around 1909/1910, allegedly distributed by A.C. Gilbert (verification needed), and set up an official company in the US in ~1913(verification needed). Gilbert patented their own metal construction system (which focused on the use of prefabricated crane-style zig-zag crossbraced girder parts), Erector, in 1913.

Although the US was less accessible to Hornby than the Continent, Hornby was desperately interested in the US market, partly because of its cultural ties with the UK and its perceived tradition of respecting engineers and inventors - many of Hornby's personal inspirations were American - but also because his protracted legal battles to prevent Meccano being pirated in the US had shown him that the absence of a solid local supply and good marketing and advertising tailored to the psychology of the local population created a vacuum that third parties were always going to try to step in to fill.

~1922, new US factory, Elizabeth, NJ

Having just spent a significant amount of money and time to establish the legal principle that Meccano Ltd.'s products could now be sold into the US market without being undercut by "copycats", the time finally now seemed right to move in and set up a US business to produce and distribute Meccano products throughout Northern America, and Hornby acquired an impressively large factory building in Elizabeth, New Jersey.

~1928/29, sale, to A.C. Gilbert

The US factory's products don't seem to have done so well, and the factory seems to have been sold to A.C. Gilbert's company in or around 1929 (the suggested possible dates are usually 1928 or 29). The Meccano US failure is usually blamed on the American "Great Depression" Stock Market Crash, but since the crash didn't happen until late October in 1929, this leaves open the intriguing possibility that perhaps the factory might have been sold first. The US market would have been more difficult for Hornby, as there was already a home-grown manufacturer of metal construction kits, the aforementioned A.C. Gilbert, so while Meccano was selling in the UK and Europe with almost no direct competition, in the States they had a difficult task of competing with a company founded and figureheaded by a charismatic all-American hero-inventor who had even competed for the United States in the 1908 Olympics.

If Meccano was a difficult sell, then what about the trains? Once again, the American market had its own home-grown model railway industry, with the biggest shares held by Lionel Trains, Ives and American Flyer, and these companies (unlike most of Hornby trains' other European competitors) actively cultured customer loyalty using similar marketing techniques to Hornby's. American model railroad locos looked different to European locos, the culture of the customers was different, and patriotism and pride in local industry was another factor that counted against a newcomer. These local companies had also had the same boost as Meccano when anti-German feeling had wiped out sales of imported German toys.

Theories and rumours

Since we don't seem to know the exact details of the factory's acquisition or sale, there has been a certain amount of speculation over how it was funded, who put up the money, and who ran it. One theory (usmeccano.com) has it that perhaps Hornby found himself a local business partner in the shape of the owner of Lionel trains, and there seems to be a certain amount of evidence to suggest some relationship in the shape of the similarity between Lionel's electric motors and those produced at Elizabeth, and in an intriguing catalogue by Lionel whose centrefold double-page advert shows a Lionel train crossing a Meccano bridge, in an apparent attempt at cross-marketing.

Ives had been America's largest model train company until Lionel eclipsed them, so when Ives went bankrupt in the summer of 1928 and were sold off at a knock-down price, the opportunity to buy their bitter rival would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that Lionel would not have been able to pass up. Lionel initially bought a half share (with American Flyer buying the other half) and then bought out American Flyer's share too, in ~1930. If Lionel did have a financial stake in the Elizabeth NJ factory (if), and had had to raise money quickly in order to buy Ives, then it's conceivable that they might have sold their stake in Meccano US to Gilbert in order to raise the necessary funds (usmeccano.com). Possibly.

~1929-~1938 - "American Meccano"

Whatever the circumstances of Gilbert's purchase of the US Meccano business, it's known that Gilbert then produced "American Meccano" sets (which increasingly diverged from their UK counterparts) until 1938, and it seems that by owning both brands they became a little more relaxed about including Meccano-style parts in Erector sets, with some Erector-branded items such as the giant locomotive set appearing to be made completely out of Meccano-style parts, with no obvious trace of the original Erector styling.

In a late C20th turnaround, the owners of Meccano France then in turn bought out the Erector name, and for some time, sets sold as Gilbert Erector(or Nikko Erector) have actually been modern Meccano France sets with a different name on he box.

Frank Hornby, 1922:

" There are still other constructional toys, of course, in America but these are not exactly on Meccano lines and are not real engineering systems. They do not therefore us a great deal of trouble.
A little while ago we purchased a very fine factory in the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey. This is a splendidly equipped building and might almost have been planned specially for our purpose. There will be no difficulty, therefore, in the future in properly attending to the assembling and distribution of Meccano throughout America from there. On this page you will find a picture of our new building, giving some idea of its size and importance. It has a floorspace of over 36,500 square feet, is well lighted and heated and has beautiful maple floors. The building is about an hour's run from New York by train and has excellent facilities and conveniences for distributing our goods to all parts of the country.
I am sure that Meccano boys will be glad to know that the boys of America are as eager and enthusiastic as they are in this country in building Meccano models.
There are already a number of Meccano Clubs over there, run by enthusiastic boys and some of these Clubs are very successful indeed. Now that we have so much additional space and the proper facilities are available we shall launch the Meccano Guild in America, and I feel quite sure that it will be just as successful in the States as it has been in this country. You already know, of course that there is an American edition of the Meccano Magazine circulating regularly among the Meccano boys in that country, and the full Guild programme will be announced in the columns of that Magazine in due course. "

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