The advent of World War I helped many manufacturers of products that had been monopolized by European companies including the model train market, which at that time were primarily tinplate models.
The founder of Lionel Trains was Joshua Lionel Cowen. Born in 1877 Joshua lived until 1965, seeing his childhood fascination of trains and railroads blossom with the success of his Lionel Manufacturing Company’s model train line. The Lionel Company was founded in lower Manhattan New York, in 1900 and found in the small locomotives a perfect vehicle for his small electric motor he had developed at the age of 22.
One story is that Joshua had been fascinated by model trains and had in fact destroyed a small wooden locomotive at age seven trying to attach a small steam engine, another states that he came into trains ‘by accident’ when he created display gondola’s for his storefront using the electric motor he had developed. His engine was not the first electric motor – one having been displayed in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, but his was to be the first miniature electric trains to be made strictly as children’s toys.
The original model which had a golden “Electric Express” pained on the side of the red wooden frame was marketing for an expensive $6 each, along with a car and thirty inches of track and became a surprising best seller. Shortly thereafter the Lionel Company expanded with miniature reproductions including diesel locomotives, steam engines, trolleys, and cabooses. He also marketed coal, cattle, and passenger car replicas: all operated electrically and introduced accessories like a suspension bridge, first marketed in 1902 and tunnels and train stations. In 1915 he began to produce smaller O gauge prototypes in addition to his earlier models and cashed in on the boom of the mid 1900’s until the Lionel company dominated the toy train business with over fifty million models introduced from inception until the mid 1920’s.
Highly coveted collectors items the early models such as the 400E steam locomotive introduced in 1931 and the 700E New York Central Hudson steam locomotive from 1937 can now fetch thousands of dollars if they can be found. For more information and to see more models enthusiasts may want to schedule a vacation to Naples Florida to the Lionel Train Museum.