Joshua Lionel Cowen founded his manufacturing company in 1900, and by the following year, he had designed ‘The Electric Express’ as an attention-getting display for toy store windows.
But demand was too strong to confine the train to an advertising gimmick, and Cowen soon began selling his electric-powered trains to the general public.
Cowen hadn’t invented the electric train, but by the end of the decade, Lionel trains were the locomotives to beat in the toy world.
Realism was the Lionel standard, and the company delighted its young customers with impressive replicas of the major lines from across the country.
The railroad was still a novelty to many, and having a scale version of the real thing in your very own living room was a dream come true for engineer wannabes.
In addition to the engines, cars and tracks, Lionel manufactured increasingly detailed accessories – from gates to switches to animated coal elevators, working water towers and more.
The trains themselves also benefited from the company’s innovations, leading to engines that switched directions, whistled, and even puffed smoke.
To keep track of the ever-increasing Lionel line-up of cars, tracks and accessories, the company issued fully-illustrated annual catalogues. For many youngsters, the books were one-stop shopping for Christmas.
Why even bother checking out what Sears and Montgomery Ward had to offer when you knew all you wanted was that working drawbridge and the passenger car with interior lights?
Like most toys, Lionel trains had their ups and downs throughout the 20th century. The Great Depression kept most families out of the toy stores and World War II halted production altogether, but the Baby Boom was very good to the toy train world.
Fathers who had grown up with Lionel train sets now bought updated versions for their own kids, creating one of the few hobbies that both generations could agree on. But at the same time, real railroads were swiftly being replaced by interstate highways and air travel as the transportation system of choice. As rail travel went, so went Lionel, and by the late 1960s, the company had declared bankruptcy.
But nobody wanted to see the era of toy trains fall by the wayside, least of all the kids who still wanted nothing more than to run a real man’s railroad. Lionel passed through several corporate hands over the ensuing decades, but the trains kept coming. Classic models were updated, and new innovations like RailSounds (realistic train sounds customised to the model being replicated) and the remote control TrainMaster system carried on the Lionel tradition proudly.
After more than 100 years, Lionel trains remain the toy of choice for many kids, and kid-at-heart hobbyists have helped keep model railroads up and running well past the real railroad’s heyday.
No matter how fast modern transportation gets, there’s still a thrill in hooking those lines of track together, fastening the car couplings and turning on the juice to a real, honest-to-goodness, working train.