Model and toy trains – Lionel starts it all

I’ve been catching up on my non-geek reading lately, and the particular focus of my magazine time has been American Heritage magazine and American History magazine. While there are a number of really cool articles in the latest American Heritage, the one that most made me want to write is something of a history of how Lionel trains came to be (and here’s a shorter link if that one is broken).

AmHeritage-Lionel_train.jpgAround 1900, when electrified toy trains were in their infancy, a battery-powered railroad car appeared in the show window of Robert Ingersoll’s novelty store on Cortlandt Street in downtown Manhattan. It wasn’t intended as a toy. Rather, the little car that tirelessly circled its loop of track was meant to draw attention to the other items on display.

Its purpose says a lot about its creator, Joshua L. Cohen, who would later change his surname to Cowen and whose middle name, Lionel, became a household word. Electric trains probably would have become popular even without him, but Cowen’s skill as an advertiser made them as much a part of Christmas for countless families as the trees under which they circled. “All Aboard, Boys, for a Merry Xmas!” a conductor calls from a circa 1920 advertisement: “Big, sturdy, handsome Lionel ‘Limited,’ complete from Locomotive to Observation Car, standing on its wonderful system of tracks and switches of shining steel… . Wide-eyed, happy boy in a dressing gown reaches out and excitedly throws on the current, from his Lionel ‘Multivolt’ Transformer. Whir-r-r! away bounds his ‘Limited’ from the gaily painted station, past semaphores, through tunnels, around curves and out onto the main line- just like a real train.”

Cowen had a dedication to quality that resulted in his trains being out of reach for many consumers. Included in the article is a short mention of a young Nelson Rockefeller leaving the Lionel store without a station accessory because he couldn’t afford it. Also highlighted in the article is some of the history of the company through wars and the Great Depression, its association with Disney (which was a large part of the company’s survival through the depression), some of the favored Lionel models (engines, sets, accessories, and cars), and even books and websites of interest to model and toy railroaders.

Of course, after reading this, I want to get out my train sets at home and play with them with my kids. I doubt the wife would like that, though. I’m pretty bad about cleaning up after play time, and she tends to get onto me about getting clutter (which I’m sure a set up train set would classify as) off the floor and out of site. Since I don’t know that I’ll get to set up my train, I figured I could at least go on a mental flight of fancy and look up some information about model trains. One of the best things I stumbled on while reading various Google links is this train guage FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions list).

What is the difference between toy and model trains?

While all trains may be considered toys, not all are considered models. The difference lies in the way the manufacturer has created the trains. Model trains are designed exactly as the name implies, that they are scale renditions of real (prototype) trains. Their dimensions are such that they closely replicate the originals. Toy trains are made without this same attention to replicating the details of the original, prototype train. This does not make one any better than the other. In fact, some of the most popular sizes of trains are considered toy trains (such as Lionel’s O Scale).

What is Gauge vs. Scale?

For model trains, gauge is the measurement between the two outside rails of the track. For toy trains, gauge is the measurement from the center of the two outside rails. Standard gauges have been agreed upon to identify these dimensions. Those gauges are usually referred to by a single (or in some cases two) letter(s). In general, gauge is referencing specifically to the track size used.

The FAQ includes a lengthy chart of the (nearly a dozen) most popular guages around the world, plus some interesting facts about a few of the guage sizes and links to a couple other sites of railroading interest.

And hey, if you think you’d like to get into collecting model trains (and possibly even playing with them), there are guides at the end of the American Heritage article on the hobby. Here’s the thoughtworthy opening to the sidebar:

You can buy a handsome vintage Lionel car for less than $100 today, but many desirable engines and sets sell for four-figure prices. Occasionally something soars much higher. This past autumn Stout Auctions, which specializes in toy and model trains, sold a superb example of the Lionel 20th Century Limited set characterized by cream trim around the windows of its four green cars, a great rarity. The buyer paid $253,000, in part because the set included not only the box for each piece but also the carton in which they were originally packed. Pristine boxes can easily double the value of a set. This is just one of the many intricacies aspiring Lionel collectors should learn before venturing out on the acquisition track. Here are some resources for other essential information:

Wow. A quarter of a million dollars? Guess I need to marry someone rich.

[tags]A brief history of Lionel trains, How model and toy railroads began, An expensive hobby – model railroads[/tags]

2 thoughts on “Model and toy trains – Lionel starts it all”

  1. Hello Ragmanx,

    Lionel is more than a heritage thing for me, it is also very attractive. Especially the pre-war and post-war trains are die-cast and heavy, moreover the have more fine detail than of competitors of that age. But what I personally like most is the hand feel: the are the right size to be handled by humans, not too small like hO, were by touching you will probably break something and not too big like G, where you will need two hands always.
    About prices. You focus on the very high end. Well it exists, but it is only a very small portion of the whole 0-3 rail market. If you look at Ebay you will find both highly priced articles and low priced articles. You can start with a simple set for 50 USD, scooped up from Ebay. There is no need to spend too much too fast.
    Personally, I like to buy a rusted wreck and make a nice train car out of it again. So, I am what they call a restorer, but there are dozens of modelrailroaders: operators, collectors, rivet counters, etc.

  2. I didn’t mean to focus on the very high end – I just found it interesting that trains could go for that. I personally have only 3 sets – two HO and one N scale set. I want my father’s old sets, but so do my 3 brothers, so we let mom keep them and we’ll figure out in the future when we have to how to split them up. Part of that is because of the value of them. An uncle of ours who got them back from another uncle (who took advantage of our mother’s grief and got the trains after our dad died) checked on them and found some cars to be estimated at near $1000 each. We’re not in a rush to deal with that aspect, so we leave them with mom.

    I visited your site and really like it. The whole process of restoring trains sounds really cool.

    Thanks for the visit.


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