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June 2024
6min read

For generations the name was as closely associated with Christmas as Santa Claus

Around 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.”

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.

In 1969 a group headed by Cowen’s grandson-in-law leased the Lionel brand name to General Mills, which went on to produce a new generation of trains, many of which replicated older ones. Richard Kughn, a wealthy businessman and longtime toy-train collector, purchased the old and new Lionel tooling along with rights to the brand in 1985. A decade later the rock singer Neil Young, a train buff who had helped Kughn develop a remote-control system, teamed up with an investment firm and bought the company. Through it all—even after a major lawsuit forced the organization to file for bankruptcy protection in 2004—Lionel trains have kept chugging out of factories in Michigan or Mexico or Korea. The company now offers a vast array of equipment and remains a leader in a field where sound effects are digital and remote controllers wireless. Some say the market has changed in that a preponderance of today’s toy train enthusiasts are adults. But has it really? An enormous number of those buyers are simply continuing a passion that began decades ago when they were kids who wanted Lionels for Christmas.

David Lander writes the column “ History Now: The Buyable Past” for American Heritage .

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