With the holidays fast approaching, some vintage toys we have in the gallery and coming up for auction in December struck me with a bit of nostalgia: a large collection of model trains. Consigned …
With the holidays fast approaching, some vintage toys we have in the gallery and coming up for auction in December struck me with a bit of nostalgia: a large collection of model trains. Consigned from a single owner, big names include Lionel, MTH and RailKing. I don’t know about you, but I can’t look at a trainset and not think of Christmas trees, elaborate holiday storefronts, and the Polar Express. It’s like they put me on the fast track back to my childhood. But why is that?
While trains might not be considered much of a modern marvel today, back in the 1800’s Americans were excited to begin crisscrossing the continent on new railways; it was considered the latest in transportation technology. People of all ages were fascinated by the great, steaming beasts chugging over vast rivers and through steep mountains. Naturally, a cultural phenomenon such as this inspired children’s toys, and at the turn of the century a young man named Joshua Lionel Cowen combined the concept of a toy train with electricity (another cultural phenom of the time) to make the first ever electric train, the Electric Express.
Which, oddly enough, wasn’t designed to be a toy at all. It was meant to be a store display attracting consumers to the other electric novelties he produced. The public, however, didn’t care as much for his electric fans, and the requests rolled in for his electric trains instead. This is how the Lionel Corporation became best known for its Lionel trains.
Riding off the success the Electric Express train had in store displays, Joshua Lionel Cowen pushed shop owners to showcase his electric toy model trains in their annual Christmastime storefronts. Additionally, advertisements promoted model trains as the perfect gift to unite father and son and bring the family together. It worked, and this marketing genius is the reason why over 100 years later, I (and probably you) still think of Lionel trains when think of Christmas – and vice versa.
While technology and the public’s fascination may have shifted away from trains in the last few decades, their place in history as a symbol of American determination and imagination remains. For over 100 years, despite ups and downs in the economy, buyouts, bankruptcies, wartime, and more, the Lionel name has persevered as one of the best in the business for train hobbyists and collectors.