When it comes to the Christmas season, area train lovers are definitely on board. Take the hundreds of people lining up for the annual model train show in Bordentown. The free display turns the town’s Old City Hall building into a toy land where trains of various gauges and eras travel across miniature landscapes, and open for viewing Fridays through Sundays through December 28, 4 to 8 p.m.
Elsewhere the New Hope & Ivyland Railroad in New Hope is meeting a busy timetable of actual holiday-themed train rides on its North Pole Express, where riders sip hot cocoa, sing Christmas Carols, and visit with Mr. And Mrs. Santa Claus (tickets for the 90-minute trip run from $11.95 to $67.90). And the Christmas Express train ride — also featuring a visit by St. Nick — is ready to leave the station at Allaire State Park (off Route 195 in Wall Township), with short trips running Friday through Sundays to December 21 ($6).
Then there are families heading to area hobby shops to buy trains and accessories. And how about the thousands of model trains being pulled from attics to be set up under the Christmas tree and fired up to welcome the big holiday?
All the evidence shows that Yule Time is train time, and one brand of model train is at the head of the line: Lionel Trains.
Yet this seemingly natural connection between Christmas and trains stirs a question: Just how did a several-thousand-year-old holiday of light and hope become entwined with steam locomotives?
Part of the answer is in the Garden State — where there are more connections than one realizes.
Longtime Montclair State University journalism professor and director of Jewish American studies program Ron Hollander tells the story in his book “All Aboard: The Story of Joshua Lionel Cowen and Lionel Train company,” originally published in 1981 and reprinted in 2000.
“The catalyst (for writing the book) is the picture on page nine of me holding a train and wearing short pants. My father took the photograph. I am totally a product of (Joshua Lionel) Cowen’s brilliant advertising,” says Hollander during a telephone interview.
A quick glance at Hollander’s 1940s-era photo — a little boy hoisting his trains over his head while standing in his Brooklyn home — suggests that with a change of clothes, haircut, location, and child the same photo has been taken anytime over the 100-plus years of the Lionel Trains. And that is no coincidence.
Joshua Cowen, obviously, was the man behind the Lionel Company and the guy that the New York Times called “the father of the toy electric trains that run on thousands of miles of miniature trains track in homes throughout the world” and who made his company’s name “the third wing of Christmas along with the evergreen tree and Santa Claus.”
Hollander’s book is a fun-fact chronicle of Cowen’s journey from a young mechanically minded entrepreneur to the creator of a holiday industry. And in the telling, Hollander also writes about a time in both America and the inner lives of many people — including him. “The trains have stayed in my consciousness all these years,” he says of a connection that went deeper than he knew before he wrote the book.
The Lionel train trip starts in 1877 when Cowen (original name Cohen) was born into a Jewish immigrant family run by a sometimes cap maker in New York City. It was an era dazzled by train power. Although the trains were born at the cusp of 1800, advancements in engineering and technology created engines that moved faster than anything anyone had ever imagined, opened the America West, transported massive amounts of freight and produce, and connected cities in ways that had been previously unimaginable. People treated it with the same enthusiasm and wonder with which people see today’s digital advancement. It was progress and good.
In Europe sophisticated and expensive toy trains run by steam or clockwork engineering had become playthings first for aristocrats and later the masses. The products were only single fixed units until the German company Marklin introduced a train set that allowed owners to add rails and extend their imaginations.
When Cowen — who had graduated from Cooper Institute and sold an invention to the U.S. Navy for $12,000 — entered the toy world in 1900, established European and emerging American toy manufacturers were in heated competition. Meanwhile a newly harnessed force was firing imaginations: electricity.
Cowen seized on using electric power early on but not for running toys; he was focused on selling miniature trains as moving signs that would be placed in department store windows to attract buyers for others’ products. However, people liked his trains and began purchasing them at $4 (when the average wage was $4.30). Soon a series of sales led Cowen to enter the toy train market. The company was the Lionel Manufacturing, with Cowen saying he used his middle name because “I had to call it something.”
Several factors aligned to help Cowen’s efforts: the expansion of electric power across the nation, the eruption of World War I and the elimination of toy exports from Germany, and marketing — especially for Christmas.
“Trains have always been inextricably linked with Christmas. Real trains chuffing through snowy landscapes brought people home for this major holiday,” writes Hollander. The sentiment is echoed by Elvis Presley in his 1971 song “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day,” when he longing sings, “Be on that train tomorrow, I’ll be home on Christmas day.”
Mix that feeling with the ritual of purchasing extravagant or special gifts and the connection grows stronger. “Toy trains were a special and expensive gift, particularly appropriate at Christmas. The practice of setting up a creche evolved into the build of a ‘Christmas garden,’ a miniature winter scene. This was but a short stop to trains circulating the Christmas tree,” says Hollander.
But it is Cowen’s conviction that Americans — especially boys (girls would be later targeted) — wanted to have Lionel Trains and his use of astute understanding of marketing techniques that are at the heart of the American Christmas-train phenomenon. “What real-live-awake boy is not interested in electricity? What boy and his elders are not anxious to know more about this wonderful study? Is there any better way than to have a perfect model as an instructor? Knowledge of electricity is valuable, not only as a profession, but as an education, whether or not one is an electrical engineer or a bell ringer,” Cowen said.
Then there is Cowen’s rhetorical question, “Can you conceive of any toy that will delight the heart of a youngster to a greater extent than one that has real life and power, that will respond to the commands of start, stop, reverse, slow, and fast without the operator even coming in contact with the model?” That was written for the device that became synonymous with Lionel and paved the way for success: the Lionel Train Catalog.
As Hollander — still a train collector — writes about the catalog’s impact: “Cowen understood he was selling more than a toy, even if the boys and fathers of America did not. The Lionel catalog … featured a color photograph of a father and son: A shining-faced little boy with a pompadour and his dad, in checked sports jacket, arm around his son, beamed over a train layout. The father asked his boy, ‘Which Lionel do you want, son?’ … My wife, Virginia, observed, ‘It’s not the trains you want: it’s your father’s arm around you.’ She was right, of course. Cowen was selling the perfect family, and the nation was buying.”
Hollander elaborates during the interview, “The catalog was the dream book. The catalog was second the Sears or Montgomery Ward in the quantity that was distributed. I remember that I made red check marks in mine. That meant that I had the train. A star was what I wanted. Cowen and Lionel were so brilliant that in the 1930s the catalog had ‘A Letter to Dad from his Son’ that said, ‘Here’s what I want — all the other boys have them.’ And there would be a blank line to write on. Then it would say, ‘And, dad, these trains will help us have a great time together.’ The directions even said to leave the note on the breakfast plate for the father to find.”
Hollander’s talk about the catalogs brings up a new wish: “There are certain paintings — they used artists from the ’30s. I would give all of my trains for some of the paintings. Boy to have an original illustration from the catalog would be great.”
Cowen’s dreams sold so much that Lionel needed to expand, and in 1914 the company moved its manufacturing operations from New Haven, Connecticut, to Newark, New Jersey, close to its corporate headquarters and showroom in New York City. Other expansions followed with plants — publicized by Cowen as “Fun Factories” — set up in Irvington and then in 1929 in Hillside, New Jersey, where Lionel stayed until 1974 and at one time employed 2,000.
Hollander, who lives in Long Island and commutes to Montclair, adds another New Jersey connection. “Many of the Lionel executives lived in New Jersey, so they named the cars after towns: Irvington, Madison, Chatham, and so on. And some of the Lionel model houses are modeled after the executives’ actual house. They used their houses as prototypes.” The company also used its factories as models for a train layout.
While the Lionel Train Company is not the manufacturing engine that it used to be — Cowen’s death and different cultural attitudes and questionable choices weakened the company — and the New Jersey factories are long silent or repurposed, the company name is still linked with trains and Christmas. The connection was helped as men and boys — as well as wives and mothers — succumbed to Lionel slogans such as “Real enough for a man to enjoy — simple enough for a boy to operate,” “Lionel Trains make a Boy feel like a Man and a Man feel like a Boy,” and “Everybody is Happy when it’s a Lionel Train Christmas.”
Hollander shares a few insights about Lionel’s marketing that he gained while writing the book: “Cowen, like a number of men at that time, was a brilliant marketer, innovator, businessman. But one thing was obvious was that he did love these trains. I spoke to people in the family and everyone says that he loved them. He would take pride and step out of his office and go into the display area and play and run the trains.”
Then there’s the product. “How positive and life affirming those toy trains were,” says Hollander. “They were creative. Little boys would create towns, stories, and characters. It was also tremendously interactive. Playing with trains was very social. You had your friends over. You learned about working together, sharing, taking turns, building. There was more the next day than you started. What we created was an ideal world with those trains: ideal for the family, ideal constructions, ideal towns. Yes (the company) made a lot of money, but they were making money doing something good. “
Yet perhaps Lionel’s most memorable and affecting Christmas connection was established just after World War II, when Lionel — like other manufacturers that had suspended toy manufacturer to support war efforts — joined the collective urge to bring back normalcy to the United States.
As Hollander notes, right after V-J Day (August 14, 1945), “Lionel managed to get a line out before Christmas. The 26th Street Lionel showroom was redecorated for the November 15 unveiling. Curved glass cases were built into the walls to show off train sets. Small tables were scattered about where salesman could close deals with major buyers. The latest in recessed indirect lighting illuminated models of the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls on the obsolete prewar layout with its four loops of track. Light wood, curved surfaces, and art deco styling created a swank aura. Newspapers covered the event, recognizing the significance of what was happening. If electric trains were back, the war was really over and good times were ahead. It was news people wanted to read, news that would make them smile.”
It was those post-war years that helped seal the Christmas-train connection: GIs returning home on trains around the country. And men and women looking to re-find themselves and introducing their children to Christmases that they used to know (or thought they knew) — a model train version of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”
Speaking for many, Hollander — who has downsized his collection from a 1,000 to 350 locomotives and cars — sums up the experience: “Cowen made electric trains synonymous with Christmas. It was not Christmas if you did not get an electric train. That applied not only for the children but for the father. The joke was that the little boy had to fight his dad for a chance to run the trains. The trains linked me to my father and my parents. This guy Cowen knew what he was doing. He orchestrated the father and son relationship. My book is about Cowen, but it also about the love for my father. The book was a long way of saying, ‘Dad, I love you.’”
Asked if he’ll be setting them up for the Christmas season, Hollander quickly says, “No. I have them out permanently. In fact I’m working on a train room. I’m still deeply smitten.”