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.

Never Too Old for Toy Trains!

Alan, Judy, & Train - Dec., 1946

My American Flyer electric train was one of the great joys of my young life. My parents bought it for me in 1942, just before wartime priorities channeled the A.C. Gilbert Company and its production facilities away from Erector sets and toy trains and into wartime activities. Being only two years of age at the time, I got an early introduction to the magic of toy trains. While not the most expensive set offered by the A.C. Gilbert Company, it was one of the nicer ones – definitely not one of the cheapie sets. It featured a detailed Pennsy Railroad K4 “Pacific” type locomotive and five cars, one of which was a very clever and fun “unloading car” which, at the press of a button, unloaded a tootsie-toy armored car trackside. Oh, the marvels of electrical technology!

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Every Christmas morning, the train appeared as if by magic under our Christmas tree – obviously due to the heroic overnight efforts of Santa Claus! In the early years, I only saw my train for the few weeks of the Christmas season – probably because of our limited floor space and my dad’s limited available time. I loved my train so much that I thought about it frequently during the year, eagerly anticipating the next Christmas. The above photo shows me with my little Chicago friend, Judy Maitzen, at Christmas-time, 1946 as I demonstrate to her the fine points of engineering – in the railroading sense.

That train set was my prized possession in those early years. Along came life, and the train set languished for many years in our garage, still packed in its original boxes. After I retired from engineering (the Silicon Valley variety) in 2001, I became interested in the modern generation of toy trains. The technology had progressed by leaps and bounds from the old days of pressing a button to close a circuit and, gee-whiz, something happens! Today’s “toy” trains can be completely operated from a wireless remote hand-controller; they come equipped with accurate railroad sounds, recorded from trackside and stored digitally within the on-board electronics. Push a button on the remote controller, and a cascade of very realistic whistles, steam emissions, diesel sounds, and synchronized choo-choo sounds emanate directly from the engines. And the physical detail is fantastic.

I became hooked once again by the magic of toy trains (and real ones, too) and began assembling a small collection of modern Lionel trains and accessories along with books and DVDs. The latter added much to my understanding and appreciation of the impact of toy trains on kids (mostly boys) throughout the decades. The Lionel Corporation was founded by Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1900 and has produced toy trains for over 112 years. Can you conjure up any corporation – let alone a toy producer – that has been in business for that long? The list is very, very short! That in itself constitutes a significant testimonial to the enduring popularity of toy trains. In recent years, the audience has shifted significantly from boys to those, like myself, who once were little boys and who have discovered that they are still susceptible to the charm of toy trains. The question that coalesced in my mind: “Are today’s kids still interested in toy trains given all the distractions that exist around them?”

 I bravely ventured at that time, “If we have grandsons some day, perhaps they, too, will enjoy toy trains like I did.” Several years passed, and Matthew and Luke were born, following our two beautiful granddaughters, Megan and Amanda. Like their mother and grandma, the girls loved their dolls and everything associated.

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The boys fell for my new trains, hook, line, and sinker. By the time Matthew was four, I trusted him to operate these sophisticated trains – remote control, dual trains, multiple track-switches and all – without supervision. He was that good at learning how to operate them, and he always obeyed my “operational principles.” Luke would arrive at our house every day-care Wednesday and immediately go over to where the trains had been to see if they had magically re-appeared since I put them away. This continued for weeks after they had been packed up. Hope springs eternal!

I first knew for certain that they had fallen under the same spell that afflicted me as a kid when I observed them both laying on the floor with their eyes at track level for long periods of time, reveling in the inexplicable “beauty” of a locomotive bearing down the track toward them. Funny, I did that same thing repeatedly back then, oblivious to everything else around me.

 Matthew loves playing with his dad’s Android tablet these days as do most kids who can get their hands on electronics. Electronics and the internet will be a strong contender for his and Luke’s attention in the coming years as has been the case with Megan and Amanda. I am gratified and relieved, however, that the same simple pleasures of playing with toy trains are not completely lost on today’s generation. Their play-imaginations are still intact and operational. I know that Linda feels the same way when we accompany our granddaughters to the American Girl doll store! Life goes on.