Lionel

PrintPrintEmailEmailAround 1900, when electrified toy trains were in their infancy, a battery-powered railroad car appeared in the show window of Robert Ingersoll’s novelty store on Cortlandt Street in downtown Manhattan. It wasn’t intended as a toy. Rather, the little car that tirelessly circled its loop of track was meant to draw attention to the other items on display.

Its purpose says a lot about its creator, Joshua L. Cohen, who would later change his surname to Cowen and whose middle name, Lionel, became a household word. Electric trains probably would have become popular even without him, but Cowen’s skill as an advertiser made them as much a part of Christmas for countless families as the trees under which they circled. “All Aboard, Boys, for a Merry Xmas!” a conductor calls from a circa 1920 advertisement: “Big, sturdy, handsome Lionel ‘Limited,’ complete from Locomotive to Observation Car, standing on its wonderful system of tracks and switches of shining steel… . Wide-eyed, happy boy in a dressing gown reaches out and excitedly throws on the current, from his Lionel ‘Multivolt’ Transformer. Whir-r-r! away bounds his ‘Limited’ from the gaily painted station, past semaphores, through tunnels, around curves and out onto the main line— just like a real train.”

The ad, which pictured standard-gauge Lionels—big trains that in the company’s illustrations seemed positively immense—went on to offer the newest Christmas catalogue, a publication that became so popular that eventually the company was issuing a million copies a year. No wonder. Lionel catalogues were brilliantly conceived, richly illustrated, and full of vivid promises. They guaranteed boys “the excitement, action and high adventure of real railroading” and even greater benefits once they had acquired “knowledge of electricity, of railroad control, and of transportation” that could lead to “positions of trust on the great railroad systems of the country.” Lest illustrations of fathers and sons hovering over layouts didn’t sufficiently suggest that the company provided a track to enduring relationships, copy spelled it out: “youthful affection [will be] transformed into a deep companionship … for life.”

Cowen was born to Eastern European immigrant parents in New York City in 1877. By the time he was 22 he held a patent for a battery-powered device that fired the flash powder then used by photographers. Once the U.S. Navy heard about it and awarded him a contract to supply detonators for mines, he was able to start the Lionel Manufacturing Company, which he founded in 1900 to make “electrical novelties.”

Among them was a fan, which nobody seemed to want very much, and he was mulling this over while walking past Robert Ingersoll’s shop window one day. Cowen’s keen promotional sense would have told him the display seemed inert, that it needed motion to attract the overoccupied city eye. What if he used his fan’s small motor instead to drive a —? He evidently approached the store’s proprietor, and when Ingersoll agreed to the idea, Cowen produced a car for the merchant’s window. It was nothing fancy, just a shallow box on wheels—with “Electric Express” bravely painted on its side—but it was an instant success. “I sold my first railroad car not as a toy, mind you,” Cowen recalled years later, “but as something to attract attention to Ingersoll’s window. I guess it was the first animated advertisement in New York, outside of sandwich men and live demonstrators. I sold it for four dollars. Well, sir, the next day he was back for another. The first customer who saw it bought the advertisement instead of the goods.”

That was all Cowen needed to make the move from show window to living room. In 1903 he produced a train whose locomotive was based on a Baltimore & Ohio tunnel engine. It ran on 27/8-inch-gauge track, the number being the space between the two rails. The company soon introduced track with a third, center, rail (it made powering trains simpler) with the space between outer ones 21/8 inches wide. Cowen confidently christened the width standard gauge and repeated the catchword in a grandiose slogan for his line of somewhat smaller but still imposing Lionels: “Standard of the World.”

Lionel did become the measure by which toy trains were judged. The company got a substantial boost from a World War I ban on German imports that included trains from Bing and Marklin, older firms that had made substantial inroads here. Cowen himself fought promotional battles, accusing competitors of using shoddy materials and construction techniques while boasting that Lionels were “built entirely of heavy-gauge steel (not brittle cast iron) driven by specially wound highpowered motors” and “beautifully finished in bright, non-chipping colors.”