For generations of Americans, gazing at a spanking new Lionel train set as it chugged along loops of tracks laid out beneath a brightly lit Christmas tree is an extra-special childhood memory. Lionel trains are not the only electricity-powered toys marketed to American children and hobbyists. But of all electric train manufacturers, Lionel is by far the most famous, a status it earned for the quality, craftsmanship, and durability of its product.
Joshua Lionel Cowen (1877–1965), a young man who since childhood had been fascinated by trains and railroads, founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company in lower Manhattan, New York, in 1900. The story goes that, when he was seven, Cowen carved a small locomotive out of wood, which exploded upon his attempting to attach it to a miniature steam engine. Although Cowen did not invent the electric train—one had been displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair—he was the first to produce miniature, electric trains as playthings. For his initial Lionel train, he hooked a small motor onto a red-stained wooden box with attached wheels, and added a gold-painted "Electric Express" to the side. He sold the car, along with thirty inches of track, for the then-hefty sum of $6. The product became a smash-hit. Soon Cowen was manufacturing meticulously designed and painted miniature reproductions of diesel locomotives, steam engines, cabooses, and trolleys as well as coal, cattle, and passenger cars, all operated electrically. He produced his first accessory, a suspension bridge, in 1902, and eventually added tunnels and train stations. In 1915, he introduced smaller, less-expensive O-gauge trains. The term "gauge" refers to the width of the track, and O-gauge models are designed to fit on tracks that are one and one-quarter inches between rails.
By the mid-1920s, Cowen's company completely dominated the toy train business. Across the decades, it sold over fifty million trains. Among the many Lionel classics were the 400E steam locomotive, first marketed in 1931; the 700E New York Central-Hudson steam locomotive, from 1937; and the F3 diesel locomotive, from 1948. In 1953, as parents by the thousands were buying Lionel trains for their baby boomer (see entry under 1940s—The Way We Lived in volume 3) offspring, Lionel recorded its highest profits ever. However, beginning in the late 1950s, Lionel trains—and all electric trains—went out of fashion, primarily because airplanes were replacing trains as the primary mode of cross-country travel.
Today, original Lionel trains are collectors items, highly coveted by vintage toy and train enthusiasts. They are especially beloved by baby boomers. In fact, in the 1990s, one celebrated baby boomer, rock musician Neil Young (1945–), even became a part owner in the company.
For More Information
Carp, Roger. The World's Greatest Toy Train Maker: Insiders Remember Lionel. Waukesha, WI: Kalmbach, 1997.
Hollander, Ron. All Aboard! The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen and His Lionel Train Company. New York: Workman, 1981.
McComas, Tom, and James Tuohy. A Collector's Guide and History of Lionel Trains. Wilmette, IL: TM Productions, 1975.