Engineering entrepreneur Joshua Lionel Cowen designed his first electric train as a store window attraction around 1900. When customers asked to purchase the train instead of the product it advertised, Cowen founded the Lionel Manufacturing Company to meet demand. Lionel built its reputation on train sets noted for their authentic detail, smooth-operating three-rail tracks, and transformers that allowed kids to vary the speed of their trains. This control, along with rolling stock of coal cars, refrigerated cars, and box cars, gave boys an appealing real-world sense of commerce and success.
Shrewd marketing made every boy think of Lionel trains each time Christmas came around. “Everybody is happy when it's a Lionel Train Christmas,” proclaimed one advertisement. Other ads highlighted father-son bonding. Lionel Trains, they proclaimed, “made a Boy feel like a Man and a Man feel like a Boy.”
Lionel trains symbolized the ideal American childhood for more than a century, and in its heyday during the 1950s, Lionel accounted for two-thirds of all the toy trains sold in the United States. Though no longer so dominant in the playroom or around the Christmas tree, Lionel Trains remain a favorite with many.