Toy trains had their modest beginnings in America in the New York loft of Joshua Lionel Cowen in 1901. This simple train, really a single motorized gondola car, has evolved into the most popular hobby in America and Europe. These first trains were battery powered, as most homes didn’t have electricity. They were also larger than most modern indoor trains. Mr. Cowen named his train company using his middle name – Lionel. Other manufacturers soon were making electric trains , and many different gauges of trains began to appear. The term gauge refers to the distance between the rails. Mr. Cowen was a shrewd businessman, and he saw the value of all manufacturers using the same gauge of track. He used his pre-eminent position to force his ‘Lionel Standard” gauge on the other manufacturers. This gauge is roughly equivalent to the modern G-scale train. This scale is too large for most peoples homes.
The next milestone in the history of the electric trains occurred in 1915. By then electricity in homes was becoming more common, and trains designed to run on household current were more practical. Lionel introduced the smaller three rail O gauge which is still in use and popular today. This gauge was more suitable for use in the home, and the use of household current made operating accessories possible.
During this period, Lionel was the premier train-maker, but not the only one. The American Flyer company came into being in 1907 with the partnership of two gentlemen named William Hafner and W. O. Coleman. They started with production of clockwork trains. They experimented using lithography, or ‘tin type’ to manufacture lower cost trains. In 1914, Hafner dissolved the partnership to start his own company. He began to produce the American Flyer electric train, first in O gauge, and later in Standard gauge.
The A. C. Gilbert Company purchased American Flyer in 1938, and switched production to HO and O gauge trains. World War II stopped all toy train production. After the war, 1946 saw the introduction of the Flyer S gauge trains. American Flyer lasted almost twenty years, producing a good quality product. In the end they just couldn’t compete with Lionel, and the company ceased production in 1966. Lionel bought the production rights in 1968, and still produces a small amount of Flyer merchandise each year.
Lionel and American Flyer were popular and good quality trains, but they were pricy. Not everyone could afford them. Louis Marx obtained the Joy Line brand of wind-up trains from a Pennsylvania toy company in 1938. This was a fairly cheap line of trains, and the Marx Company grew their own line of trains from this beginning. These trains were more affordable, and were popular until the company went out of business in 1975. Recently, the Marx train line has been revived, and are again available to run and collect.
Toy trains saw their beginnings at the start of the 20th Century. At the start of the 21st century, trains are still popular. Kids love them as toys, and as a hobby adults find the magic is still alive. Thomas the Tank on TV and Lionel are reintroducing a new generation of children to the fun of toy trains. Trains are available in a large variety of scales, styles, and types. There is sure to be a train suitable for you. Treat yourself to the pleasure of a toy train today!