Most toy factories shut down manufacturing to aid the war effort. Not this one.
Tom Jensen, a Danish immigrant and graduate in the field of mechanical engineering, found himself unemployed during the Great Depression. In order to stay busy, he constructed six samples of a miniature, 12 pound brass steam engine that could be used, for example, as a generator to light a flashlight. It was his way of capitalizing on the nation’s fascination with steam-powered railroads.
European companies like German toy maker Bing had already been manufacturing miniature steam engines since the turn of the century. But this was the first time an American took a swing at it.
Jensen’s prototype was picked up by F.A.O Schzartz Toy Store, with other retailers such as Macy’s and Spiegal Catalog Company quickly following suit.
But the start of World War II threatened to put Jensen’s dreams on hold. The toy manufacturing sector came to a stand-still, as factories, including Jensen’s, were ordered to shift their activities to support the war effort. Erector Set, a maker of miniature metal construction sets, redirected its manufacturing toward munitions. Lionel Train Co., a model train and railroad company, raised chickens for the war effort.
Jensen Manufacturing Co., on the other hand, was soon deemed a “War Essential Industry” by the US government and issued an exemption from the manufacturing ban. The Army’s Chemical Warfare Department had determined that the steam engine was strong enough to power an air pump that tested for the presence of poisonous gases. To keep up with government demand, the factory remained open 7 days a week.
Jensen continued to grow his company after the end of the war and all the way up to his death in 1993 at age 92. The business was taken over by his son, Tom Jr, who still preserves the manufacturing process used to create the original prototypes. It’s no wonder the factory has been described as a “trip back in time.”
Jensen’s four employees produce around 2,000 to 3,000 steam engines every year. Costing anywhere from $150 to $773 and available online, the items remain popular for collectors, schools, and model-builders. There’s even a Jensen’s collectors’ Facebook page.
Vintage models can go for as much as $7,500 at auction. Here are a few (less expensive) Jensen steam engines currently for sale on ebay:
It’s hard to think many kids today would be interested in playing with a miniature steam engine for fun. And I can’t think of any 21st century toys that could power a poisonous gas detector. Perhaps today’s equivalent would be a drone? There’s an interesting article in Collector’s Weekly about how model trains, popularized during the height of the steam-engine craze, went from “cutting edge to quaint.” Changes in technology may be the reason we no longer see miniature steam engines marketed toward kids. But it would be kinda cool if they made a comeback!