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The History of Lionel Trains

Joshua Lionel Cowen, an engineering entrepreneur, designed his first electric train as a store window attraction around 1900. After customers began asking to purchase the train rather than the product it was meant to advertise, Cowen founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company to meet the demand. The company built a reputation for authentic detail, smooth operation, and transformers that allowed for speed variance. They also marketed their products shrewdly, highlighting father-son bonding and creating a strong association with Christmas using ad lines like, “Everybody is happy when it’s a Lionel Train Christmas” and “[Make] a Boy feel like a Man and a Man feel like a Boy.” For more than a century, Lionel trains symbolized an idealized American childhood, and during their heyday in the 1950s, they accounted for two-thirds of all toy trains sold. Today, they are no longer quite as dominant as gifts or decorations for Christmas, but still remain a beloved favorite for many families.

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