Lionel Train History

What’s in the Attic?
by Linda Hamer Kennett

(reprinted with permission)

Even though we may only realize it in retrospect, children often display behavior very early in life that points to their destiny. In the early 1890’s seven year old Joshua Lionel Cowen whittled a miniature locomotive from a scrap of wood. It was a remarkable likeness considering his young age. He then tried to fit it with a tiny engine. …and it exploded. He was unharmed, but his mother’s kitchen sustained considerable damage. Many years later, in his early twenties, he would try the experiment again. This time he met with success. He gave his invention his middle name, and the model train was born.

Cowen sold his first model train to a Manhattan shop owner in 1901, by convincing him the small train running through his Christmas window display would draw attention to his other merchandise. The shop owner returned the next day to order half a dozen more tracks and trains. It appeared while the merchandise in his window was getting attention, the customers main question was… “where can we buy the train?” Lionel quickly provided the shop with a dozen train sets consisting of of one electric flat car and thirty feet of track and dubbed it the “Electric Express”. With in twelve months Cowen acquired enough capital to start his own company, The Lionel Corporation.

Though a prolific inventor, Cowen’s marketing skills would prove just as valuable to his success. Working from a German tradition, linking toy trains to Christmas, Cowen approached a number of large department stores in New York City convincing them to incorporate elaborate train set ups around their Christmas tree displays. He provided the trains, tracks, building and landscapes. The public reaction to the displays was overwhelming, sales boomed, and America had officially entered the “Golden Era of Toy Trains”.

The years brought many changes as Cowen constantly improved upon his original concept. In 1902 a train set with a “City Hall Park” trolley and a two foot suspension bridge met with great success. 1903 saw the introduction of the B&O locomotive and the motorized Derrick car. And in 1906 Lionel added a third rail which carried the current and the outer rails, which were the ground rails. Three trolleys, two steam engines, two passenger cars, seven freight cars and a small wall transformer completed this ground breaking set.

In 1907 the Cowen’s became the parents of a son, Lawrence. Not unlike other parents showing off pictures of their little ones, the proud papa placed his son’s likeness on the company emblem. From that year forward it would be seen on all Lionel train boxes and featured in the catalogs. To no ones surprise, Lawrence went on to become the company’s president.

In 1929, Cowen unveiled the “Transcontinental Limited”, which stretched nine feet from its massive headlight to its ornate observation platform, complete with brass rail. It cost an unheard off $110, more than price of a used Model T. Lionel was at the peak of their success when the Depression of the early 1930’s hit. People were struggling to feed their families and very few had money to spend on toys. Obtaining government contracts for his other manufacturing concerns, Cowen managed to keep the Lionel Corporation afloat.

The war years of the 40’s left toy manufacturers with a metal shortage. Lionel stepped up their production of plastic accessories, and once again kept their doors open. When production resumed in the mid-40’s, Lionel turned out trains and accessories that are considered by many to be the best in their long company history. By the mid-1950s, public interest had shifted from trains to airplanes and slot-cars. Christmas of 1953 saw the first considerable drop in sales and with no resurgence of interest to save it, the Lionel Train Corporation and it closed in 1965.

In 1995 a group of investors, headed by singer/song writer Neil Young formed what is known as Lionel Limited Liability Corporation or Lionel LLC. The trains produced by this company, while of fine quality. are of little interest to collectors.

In 1999 the Lionel electric train was recognized as one of the top ten toys of the twentieth-century. The little seven year old boy, who had once blown up his mothers kitchen died in 1965, the undisputed “king” of the toy train industry.

{Linda Hamer Kennett is an associate member of the International Society of Appraisers specializing in the valuation and liquidation of antiques and may be reached at 317-356-8967 or [email protected]}

Some current live auctions on eBay for Lionel Train items:

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