Lionel Trains have been the icon for toy trains and the most-desired Christmas gift for millions of American children since 1901 when Joshua Lionel Cowen invented a battery powered car which ran around and around a 30 inch circle of track. This first train was not designed as a toy for sale but as an advertising action gimmick to entice customers into a Toy Store. Electric power was still a novelty to many Americans at this time and model trains were mostly ride-on or pull string toys. People were fascinated by the little self-powered car and Cowen soon produced a large Gondola type car called the Electric Express which ran on 2 ⅞” wide track and was eventually powered by a 110 volt step down transformer. Major advancements were introduced in 1906 when Lionel changed its track to 3 rails- a system which used the center rail as the current supply and the outside rails as common or current return conductors. The outside rails of this configuration were spaced at 2 ⅛” and later described as Standard Gauge by Joshua Cowen. By 1910 electrical power in American homes was becoming more and more common and Lionel began to produce a wide variety of freight and passenger cars as well as train stations and other trackside structures. For those who could afford them, Lionel trains were becoming extremely popular. These early electric trains were best described as toy trains with little effort at scale modeling. The big attraction was the fact that they were ELECTRIC trains and could be controlled by an operator just like the real thing. Most cars were made from thin metal and had such details as windows, ladders, and even rivets printed on the colorful surfaces and were described as TINPLATE trains (much prized by modern collectors).
In 1915, Lionel began to produce O gauge or zero gauge, as it was sometimes called, in addition to their standard gauge trains. O gauge rails were spaced 1 ¼” apart and Lionel thought the smaller size trains would appeal to young children as well as reduce their manufacturing costs. Whatever the reason, the introduction of O scale turned out to be the catalyst that would skyrocket Lionel into the country’s leading toy Train Company. After World War 1 Cowen started a very successful advertising campaign using newspapers and magazines concentrating on the participation and enjoyment of Lionel trains by the whole family. Lionel’s colorful and wonderfully illustrated catalogs featuring not only trains but bridges, structures and operating accessories were a major component of this campaign. The Great Depression hit Lionel hard and during the early 1930’s the company teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. In 1931, Lionel released the standard gauge 400E locomotive which sold for around 45 dollars-a price out of reach for most families of this era. In the mid-1930’s Lionel became profitable again and during this time produced the 700E New York Central Hudson Locomotive which was the most accurate scale model ever produced by the company and was greatly desired and further detailed by the growing number of true scale model railroaders. The American Railroads were making a mass effort to streamline and advertise their named passenger trains and Lionel immediately followed with models such as the Union Pacific M-1000 and the Milwaukee Road’s Hiawatha. It is almost impossible to describe the impact that these toy electric trains had on the growing population of adult model train enthusiasts. O was now the most popular model railway scale and it gave rise to not only more converts but also to a number of magazines and building kits devoted to scale. It also was responsible for the end of Lionel’s production of standard gauge trains in 1939. In the 1940’s the period known as the pre-war Lionel era would come to an end.
During World War II Lionel ceased production of toy trains and switched to war production. The company continued to advertise however, and kept the Lionel name alive by suggesting to consumers that they plan their post-war train layouts. In 1945 the company renewed production with several new O scale locomotives and the introduction of smoke units for their steam engines and operating knuckle couplers. Throughout the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Lionel sales boomed with record sales in 1953 but sales fell sharply through the late 50’s likely due to the rising popularity of the HO scale trains which were more realistic in appearance and took up much less layout space. In 1959, the Cowen family sold the company and over the following years it passed through many owners and changed locations several times.
My experience with Lionel Trains began in 1941 when I got my first train set for Christmas. As I remember, it was a streamlined steam locomotive with a gondola, a two-domed tank car, a boxcar and a caboose complete with a circle of track and a small transformer/controller. The advantage of Lionel train sets was the ability to assemble and disassemble those big three rail plug-in track sections. The metal locomotive and cars were rugged and easily withstood the careless handling and thrown-into-the-box storage efforts of a six year old boy. After the war when Lionel came out with all of those wonderful operating accessories I discovered the Lionel store downtown and for the first time I saw a complete layout built on a large sheet of plywood. This was a magnificent scene to me and I was totally awed by the two trains running continuously through the maze of stations, water towers, and searchlights. Above the layout was a list of all of the layout components along with individual prices and it didn’t take me long to add up the fact that even part of this toy world was beyond the reach of my family’s budget. The dream was born however and I would remember the fascination of that moment for many years to come. In later years when I discovered real scale model trains at a Home Show I was immediately converted and when affordable HO gauge trains began to appear I started to collect kits for what would turn out to be my first actual model railroad. But I never forgot that train store layout and it is easy to understand why there are so many Lionel Train collectors and layout builders to this day.