Lionel Electric Trains: A Christmas Tradition

Looking back on my life with seventy-nine plus years of hindsight, I recall some very special times and experiences. Among the fondest of my boyhood memories are those connected with Christmas and electric trains.

I had my first electric train before I was two! It was a swell American Flyer set from the 1941 catalogue of the A.C. Gilbert Company. I believe there were two reasons why my financially strapped parents bought me a then-sophisticated train set at such an early age: my dad couldn’t wait for me to have one and World War II would not wait before steering many manufacturing companies like Lionel toward wartime production work. Toy train production ceased until 1945/46.

Although my American Flyer train set provided me with some of my most precious boyhood joys, Lionel trains controlled the lion’s share of seasonal sales. From its beginnings in 1906 as the brainchild of its founder, Joshua Lionel Cowen, the company maintained its leadership position by offering innovative and colorful toy trains and accessories – all supported by a brilliant staff of employees in sales and marketing. Lionel’s catalogues from the nineteen-thirties through the fifties are colorful collector’s items and persistent reminders of the glory-days of toy trains. A perfect example is the cover of the 1949 Lionel catalogue (pictured above) which thrilled the hearts of young boys while capturing the color and the joy of Lionel at Christmas-time.

A close look at that cover will reveal an all-white box car on the middle track unloading small milk cans onto a platform. The “milk car,” with its trainman who deposits a miniature milk can on the platform deck at the touch of a remote-control button, was a post-war introduction which became one of Lionel’s all-time best sellers.

After retirement nineteen years ago, I succumbed to the magic of Lionel and bought several trains, accessories, and a significant assortment of track and switches – enough to satisfy my lifelong yearning for things Lionel. I recently bought the present-day version of the milk car to expand my collection.

While on vacation in the town of McMinnville, Oregon last October, I happened upon a like-new postwar Lionel automatic gateman (ca. 1946 – 1950) displayed with other vintage trains in a downtown antique store. I bought it for the bargain price of $37 figuring it would be a steal…if it actually worked. It works just fine!

My boyhood American Flyer train set had its own Lionel gateman, fashioned in brightly colored tin-plate just like my new acquisition. For numerous Christmases since 1942, my original gateman never failed to burst from his “shack” with illuminated red lantern swinging at the approach of every train. I still have that original gateman in good condition with original box and instruction sheet. A price tag on the box reads $3.95: now that is a real bargain! The Lionel gateman is Lionel’s all-time best seller: it has enthralled kids and adults for generations with the colorful action it brings to any train layout.

Joshua Lionel Cowen was a brilliant marketer of his company’s wares. He hired the best writers and illustrators for his annual train catalogues. Those illustrations of sleek, powerful trains thundering down the track were like a siren-song to young boys like me. Although well aware that my family could not afford to buy me the trains I longed for, nothing provided more pleasure than to sit at the kitchen table having a cream-cheese and jelly sandwich for lunch, a Lionel catalogue spread out before me: pure joy, then, and wonderful nostalgia, now!

The milk car and cattle car, pictured in the 1947 catalogue, are prime examples of Lionel’s creative manufacturing and marketing prowess.
In 1937, Lionel released their famous 700E Hudson-class locomotive. That engine ushered into the toy train business a degree of detailed realism never-before imagined. Die-cast engines now replaced the fanciful tin-plate trains of prior decades and signaled the merger of serious model railroading with the whimsical toy trains of the past. The 700E was featured on the cover of the 1937 catalogue.

Today, the core of Lionel’s business stems from older adults like myself who finally made their boyhood dreams a reality later in life. The high-end of today’s Lionel offerings features remote-controlled trains that not only chug, smoke, and whistle, but can be individually controlled on large layouts featuring multiple trains. The push of a button will enable selected conversations between the engineer and the yard foreman controlling traffic on the rails. This railroad chatter all emanates from the engine, itself. Lionel has kept pace with the burgeoning tech industry while providing impressive realism in its trains. Today’s catalogue lists Lionel’s top engines at well over $2000.

In 1990, Lionel issued an improved version of their famous 700E Hudson locomotive from 1937. I purchased a fine example on E-bay; it is the crowning piece in my train collection and a very handsome steam engine, for sure.

Today, Lionel still caters to the fancies of youngsters by offering lower-priced theme trains such as “The Polar Express” and “Thomas the Tank Engine.” Serious model railroaders are the reason Lionel is still on the scene after one-hundred and thirteen years of existence, however. Although the company has survived changing times (in the extreme) and changing management, it continues forward.

How many corporations have lasted for more than one-hundred years? Not many, if any. I for one am glad that Lionel is still with us and that the magic of toy trains going clickety-clack down the rails still resonates.

Precious are the many family Christmases beginning in the early nineteen-forties when my electric train was busily running around its large oval of track underneath the tree. In the early days, my train did not appear until Christmas morning (kudos to my dad for his late-night efforts on Christmas eve). After three weeks or so, the tree came down, the train was boxed and stored away, and I did not see it until the next Christmas. In hindsight, it seems almost cruel that my enthusiasm for playing with my train should be curtailed for a whole year. Times were different, then.


Alan and friend, Judy: Christmas, Chicago 1946

I can only surmise that our crowded apartment precluded the possibility of having an electric train underfoot apart from the special festivity of Christmas. Indeed, that practical reality served to reinforce my association of toy trains with Christmas. In those early years, I often thought about my train during the year, fully anticipating the joy to come when Christmas (and my train) would finally materialize, once again.