A banjo signal from 1976.

His insistence on quality made Lionels pricey, even for some you’d think could have afforded them. In All Aboard , his history of Lionel, Ron Hollander describes a visit the young Nelson Rockefeller made to the company showroom, accompanied by “a governess, bodyguard, chauffeur, and several others… . Finally he decided on a station [an accessory]. Cowen told him it was $1.50. Crestfallen, Rockefeller said he didn’t have that much. While Cowen looked on in astonishment, the group turned and trooped out.” Rockefeller’s choice was modest. A truly grand Lionel accessory, the No. 300 Steel Bridge, based on the Hell Gate Bridge that spans New York City’s East River, was featured in the 1928 catalogue with a $15 price tag. Train sets could, of course, cost considerably more. The 1927 Lionel Limited, an eight-foot-long passenger set with lighted cars, listed for $82.50, about a quarter the price of that year’s $360 Model T Ford Runabout.

During the Great Depression, Lionel lost money until a product with a very low price helped haul it out of the red. It was a handcar pumped by Mickey and Minnie Mouse; it listed for one dollar in 1934, and a snapshot in Hollander’s book of Siam’s boy king Ananda playing with one proves you didn’t have to be poor to love it. A quarter of a million sold, and some 100,000 orders went unfilled for lack of product. The Disney characters couldn’t restore Lionel to profitability by themselves, but the attention they captured for the company surely helped. Great items followed, including many designed to run on 11/4-inch O-gauge track. During the economically depressed 1930s smaller, and consequently cheaper, O-gauge trains became more important to Lionel, which phased out their big standard-gauge siblings altogether at the decade’s end.

The firm produced a fleet of engines in the sleek, streamlined style of the thirties, and in 1937 it proudly unveiled the 700E Hudson, which would become beloved by Lionel devotees. Designed to please adult enthusiasts who preferred the authentic scale and accurate detail of trains in the so-called model category to the less realistic replicas known as toy trains, the O-gauge locomotive called the “first authentic scale model of the mighty Hudson” reflected more realism than any previous Lionel. Based on the steam engine that led the New York Central Railroad’s red-carpet 20th Century Limited, it was Cowen’s personal favorite and came with its own display platform.

The company manufactured military instruments during World War II but kept desire for its trains alive with its own magazine and a promotional booklet that boys could use to blueprint the systems Cowen knew they were dreaming about. “Don’t wait until the last shot is fired … before starting plans and preparations for a miniature railroad system of your own,” its writer urged. After the war Lionel steamed quickly back—literally thanks to a pill that, when heated by a bulb in their headlamps, made its locomotives spew smoke. In 1947 a car with a remote-controlled attendant who moved milk cans onto an accessory platform appeared, and the following year Lionel introduced one with cattle that would shuffle out at the touch of a remote, vibration-inducing button. Cowen liked cars that did something.

In the 1950s the company’s mighty sales engine began to sputter; soon after Lionel’s peak year of 1953—which saw sales of 32.9 million—volume diminished by more than half. Real-world transportation had evolved, and airplanes began carrying more passengers than America’s rail system. Many families were driving to their destinations on an expanding interstate highway network; back-seat passengers, the boys at least, would soon fuel a fad for toy racing cars. Lionel decided to address the female market with a train set. (Cowen’s granddaughter Cynthia said he was closer to the girls in the family than to the boys, but when he gave her a locomotive, it was a small gold one for her charm bracelet.) In 1957 the company’s crew went courting with a set that included a white and gold transformer, a pink engine, and pastel cars painted lilac, yellow, and blue—colors that a copywriter called “fashion-right” but which buyers, who preferred realistic trains, deemed wrong. The Lady Lionel quickly disappeared.

By the end of the decade, with Lionel losing money and shareholder dividends chopped, the recently retired Cowen made a surprise move that led to a takeover. In 1959, even though his son Lawrence was running the company, he sold his interest to a great-nephew. The buyer’s name, Roy Cohn, tended to evoke emotions quite different from those associated with Lionel. Cohn was best known as a key legal aide to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and a national television audience had seen him at his boss’s side during hearings at which McCarthy attacked the U.S. Army for coddling Communists. Cohn’s takeover of Lionel’s shrinking empire was also foolhardy. When he disposed of his stock in 1963, it was worth a third of what he had paid for it.