Additional copy on Joshua Lionel Cowen provided by Judy Gonyeau, managing editor
Joshua Lionel Cowen was an extraordinary inventor and entrepreneur. From a young age, Cowen’s mechanical talent was evident to the point that his parents enrolled him in the Peter Cooper Institute High School which was, oddly enough, named for the inventor of the steam locomotive. From there he attempted to gain a college degree but found the pull of mechanical work too strong to keep him contained.
Cowen started as an apprentice at a dry-cell battery maker and then moved on to assemble battery lamps at Acme Electric Lamp Company in Manhattan.
In 1899, at just 22 years of age, Cowen invented and obtained a patent for the flash-lamp, an early photographer’s flash-light source. Because of his talent, the U.S. Navy gave Cowen $12,000 to produce 24,000 detonators for underwater mines. That money seeded his business, the Lionel Manufacturing Company, and allowed him to set up a production facility. The mission of the company was to “manufacture electrical, mechanical, and industrial appliances … and toys.”
Once while walking through New York’s business district, Cowen was admiring window displays when he envisioned an idea that would draw the eye to the merchandise in a different way: movement. He had been working with electricity and how it could be harnessed to make items move – he used an electric motor to drive a small fan and then designed a shallow wooden box on wheels that he propelled around a set of crude tracks. The “Electric Express” gondola was created, and the first one sold for four dollars to Robert Ingersoll’s novelty store in Manhattan for a window display.
Selling these items as a marketing tool was the intent, but most users were buying them as toys. Cowen took that cue and created a realistic-looking electric trolley car made of metal and the marketing tool transformed into what would become the most popular mechanical toy to this day: the model train. Here is the Lionel Story.
First Period: 1906 Trolleys and Steam Engines
In 1900, Cowen and Harry Grant founded what became one of the world’s greatest toy train companies. In 1901 they produced their first trains. Most new businesses fail within five years, and of Lionel’s many early American competitors, only American Flyer survived until the 1960s. Lionel became the nation’s largest seller of toy trains.
Lionel introduced Standard Gauge trains in 1906. These were completely new products. They replaced Lionel’s 1901-1906 line of trains running on two rails which were spaced 2-7/8 inches apart. Standard Gauge trains ran on three rail tracks with an insulated center rail; the distance between the outer rails was 2-1/8 inches.
In the 1906 catalog, Lionel offered trolley models in three sizes – small, medium, and large. Lionel focused on trolleys since they were the most important form of urban transit. Lionel had done well selling a 2-7/8 inch gauge trolley model from 1901 through 1905.
Second Period: 1910 Innovation
In 1910, Lionel produced its first three models of the New York Central S-2 locomotive based on the New York Central S-2 prototype which had gone into service only four years before. Lionel offered three sizes: the small No. 1910, the medium No. 1911, and the large No. 1912. For the first time on its locomotives, Lionel used the
elaborate New York, New Haven, and Hartford italic logo. Lionel had moved its factory to New Haven in 1909.
In 1910, Lionel introduced three new product lines consisting of eight distinct items: three New York Central S-2 electric locomotives, three Summer trolleys, and two smaller freight cars. The New York Central S-2 electric locomotives were based on actual New York Central locomotives introduced in 1906. The No. 1910 model was the smallest, the No. 1911 model was larger and the No. 1912 was the largest. Lionel’s use of four-digit catalog numbers—1910, 1911, and 1912, which represented calendar years—created confusion then and now! Lionel also added three Summer trolleys.
One of Lionel’s best-selling 2 7/8 inch gauge items was the Converse Summer trolley. Nevertheless, from 1906 through 1909, Lionel produced only closed-in trolleys. In 1910, Lionel reintroduced Summer trolleys in three sizes. Each size was produced in motorized and non-motorized versions. The motorized versions shown are No. 101 top left, No. 202 top right, and No. 303 bottom.
Third Period: The Revolution of 1923
No. 402 was one of the first Lionel locomotives constructed from large sheet metal sections primarily fastened together with tabs and slots. The locomotive also had a heavy steel frame which added to its tractive power. These construction changes were applied to all of the Classic Electric Locomotives created in the 1920s.
Another key component of the Revolution of 1923 was the single, large brass insert on each side that created the windows, door, and two letter-number boards. Lionel put “LIONEL” rather than a real railroad road name as the key identifier. With this change, Lionel altered a part of its traditional concept of model train realism.
Another key component of the Revolution of 1923 was the single, large brass insert on each side that
created the windows, door and two letter-number boards. Lionel put “LIONEL” rather than a real railroad roadname as the key identifier.
In 1923, Lionel introduced: two new locomotives, Nos. 402 and 380; and three new passenger cars, Nos. 418, 419, and 490. All five were built primarily using a new method of body construction – large-stamped components assembled with tabs and little soldering. The new construction method required elaborate and expensive tooling and larger presses to stamp and fold metal parts. Previously, Lionel had built all of its trains by soldering together relatively small pieces of metal. From 1923 on, all Lionel’s new sheet metal locomotives and rolling stock models were built with large stamped components assembled by tabs.
To be profitable, volume was key. Lionel enjoyed greatly increased sales, presumably due to the enhanced visual appeal of the new trains, while the major manufacturing change gave Lionel significant cost advantages over its competitors Ives and American Flyer.
Lionel also made an important change in locomotive markings in 1923 by adding both the word “LIONEL” and the locomotive number “402” or “380” on brass plates on the locomotive sides. Previously, locomotives and rolling stock were rubber-stamped with accurate reproductions of real railroad logos and numbers for the New York Central, Pennsylvania; New York, New Haven & Hartford; Lake Shore, etc.
Lionel used a cost-efficient method when they added the brass plates. One large plate was inserted on each side of the locomotive cab. Punched openings in the locomotive cab fitted the window, door, and letter board sections of the brass plates.
The shiny brass plates attracted customers and turned out to be an excellent merchandising tool. Retailers also gained easy-to-read model numbers.
Fourth Period: Classic Era Steam 1929-1939
The 1937 No. 400E locomotive was a spectacular sight with a two-tone blue paint finish and bright nickel trim. Because of revived demand, Lionel reproduced this locomotive in 1990.
Ives, Lionel’s most important Standard Gauge competitor, introduced new improved locomotives in 1927 and 1928. Consequently, Lionel offered a completely new Standard Gauge locomotive, the No. 390, in 1929. In 1930, Lionel introduced its first No. 390E Blue Comet locomotive with a two-tone blue paint and copper trim. In 1937, Lionel’s No. 400E Blue Comet had a bright blue boiler and nickel trim.
The new steam locomotive family grew to six locomotives: Nos. 384 /384E, 400E, 392E, 385E, and 1835E, which are known as Classic Era Steam. These Classic Era Steam locomotives were a complete break from the manufacturing techniques used for previous Lionel steam locomotives.
The Classic Era Steam locomotives had heavy, one-piece diecast frames. The diecast steam chest and smokebox front (boiler front) and heavy sheet metal boiler added weight. Initially, the new Lionel locomotives had bright brass and copper trim that distinguished them from the early Lionel steam locomotives. Later, Classic Steam
locomotives had nickeled trim. Real-world locomotives by 1900 were no longer festooned with copper, brass, or nickeled trim since their operating environment was dirty. Lionel designers had concluded that highly interpretative designs emphasizing massive proportions and bright trim would increase sales.
Because of the Great Depression, in the 1930s Lionel’s sales fell precipitously. As sales of the premium-priced Standard Gauge equipment declined, Lionel shifted its emphasis to O Gauge. Lionel offered new O gauge models in 1934 and continued to offer Standard Gauge sets in its catalogs through 1939. The last individual items were offered in 1940.
The marketing emphasis on highly interpretative models peaked in the early 1930s. Subsequently, Lionel began to move back towards realism with its new O gauge models. The emphasis shifted entirely towards realism in 1937 with the No.700 Hudson Scale Model (except for the 1937 Blue Comet).
In the 1950s collectors and operators rediscovered Standard Gauge trains. They needed replacement parts; many locomotives would not operate because their cast-metal components deteriorated due to impurities in the casting alloys. With time, new small businesses began making Standard Gauge parts; then in the 1970s reproductions were made. Today Mike Wolf and his company, MTH, manufacture Standard Gauge trains for Lionel under the Lionel Corporation Tinplate trademark. As a result, Standard Gauge equipment is a vibrant part of the toy train market again.
Lionel experienced its greatest sales in 1953 when nearly $33 million in Lionel train sets were sold. Joshua Lionel Cowen retired in 1958, with his majority interest in Lionel sold to his great-nephew. As the popularity of the automobile took off and families flipped the switch on their new televisions and that became a new focus for
families, the Golden Age of Railroading—and Model Railroading—began to fade. Cowen passed away on September 8, 1965.
Collectors and aficionados keep the model train hobby alive to this day, with shows, collections, and museums drawing a broader audience than ever to the movement of the train.
Bruce Greenberg is president at Greenberg Properties, Inc. in New Alexandria, Virginia, and the author of several books on model railroads, including Greenberg’s Repair & Operating Manual for Lionel Trains, Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Trains 1945-1969 Volumes 1-6, and Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Trains 1970-1997 Volumes 1-3, along with several pricing guides and catalogs.