Coca Cola ad from the 1950's clearly illustrates the connection
that was made between electric trains and the holidays.(Courtesy
Electric Trains of Christmas
Toy electric trains have been identified with the
Christmas season for nearly a century. How did these miniatures
from the world of transportation become icons of the winter holiday
There have been toy trains since the first real
railroads came into being. However in 1891 the German toy company
Marklin introduced a new product. Not just a toy train, but a
toy train set. A complete system including locomotive,
cars and track all scaled to a particular size. The idea was that
this would be part of a line of toys to which you could add accessories,
like extra cars, different locomotives and miniature buildings.
It turned out to be a real boon for Marklin as it encouraged buyers
to come back again and again to purchase more items to add to
their tiny worlds.
These early train sets were made of soldered tinplate
and were driven by a windup mechanism which gave the operator
little control over the engine and cars other than to crank the
key and let them roll. Still, they proved very popular and companies
in Britain and the United States soon followed, building their
own toy train sets. The Germans dominated the market, however,
until the onset of World War I. After that, anti-German sentiment
allowed domestic manufacturers to increase their market share
at the German's expense.
In the United States the toy maker Ives was one
of the first makers of toy train sets. These sets featured a windup-clockwork
mechanism driving an engine and cars made out of cast iron. Ives
put together a successful advertising campaign aiming at what
they felt was their target audience: 12 year-old boys. They managed
to build brand loyalty and became perhaps the largest manufacturer
of toy trains in the United States by the beginning of the 20th
Other toy inventors, however, were pondering how
to get past the limits of the clockwork mechanism. In 1897 the
U.S. company Carlisle & Finch started producing an electric toy
train that ran off batteries. Strangely enough, the only other
product produced by the company was a carbon arc searchlight.
The trains did well, but as the United States entered into World
War I, the government forbade the company from producing the toys
as Uncle Sam needed the business to concentrate on building spotlights
for the war. After the conflict was over, Carlisle & Finch decided
not to resume their toy train production. Today they remain a
premier vendor for search lights and related equipment.
electric trains from the 1920's lined up in their showroom
for a publicity photo.
There were others, however, ready to step into Carlisle
& Finch's shoes. In 1900 a new company was founded whose name
would be forever associated with electric trains: Lionel. When
Lionel Corporation was started by Joshua Lionel Cowen and Harry
C. Grant in New York City it was not their intention to build
toy trains. They saw the company as making a number of electric
novelty devices, the first one being a fan. As part of an advertising
ploy, Cowen took one of the fan motors and used it to power an
electric train that ran on a battery. The idea was that a moving
miniature train in a store window would draw attention to the
other products. However, store owners got more inquiries about
buying the train than the fans and Lionel soon added toy railways
to their product line. Eventually it became their main business.
Lionel electric trains became so popular that Ives
was forced to come out with its own electric trains. By beginning
of the 1920's, Lionel, Ives and another company, American Flyer,
were battling it out for the biggest share of the U.S. electric
toy train market.
ad campaign from the 1950's connecting Christmas to Lionel
Trains. (Courtsey of Lionel LLC).
All toy trains are some fraction of the size of
a real train and that ratio is known as the "scale." The most
important part of the train's scale is the "gauge" or the size
of the track it runs on. If the train does not properly fit the
track, it will derail. Having trains fit a certain gauge also
means that they will be interchangeable, allowing the engine and
cars from one manufacturer to run on the track of another manufacturer.
By the 1920's Ives was using the "1 gauge" which
consisted of two rails 1.75 inches (44.45 mm) apart. This gauge
had originally been introduced by Marklin and is the same width
as the modern "G" gauge. Lionel, however, chose to build most
of its trains in a new gauge that it created and called "wide"
or "standard" gauge. Standard gauge rails were slightly farther
apart at 2.12 inches (53.975 mm). American Flyer used "O" gauge
(also introduced by Marklin) which was smaller than either at
1.25 inches (31.75 mm) in width. Although early toy train manufacturers
were not too fussy about keeping accurately to scale sizes, this
meant that Lionel's trains were slightly larger than either American
Flyer's or Ives. Since they were priced very similarly, this meant
the consumer was getting a larger train for about the same price
from Lionel, which was a real advantage for the company when it
came to marketing.
Lionel's standard scale was, like many early track
standards, a three-rail system. This meant that in addition to
the two outer rails you would see on a real railroad, the track
had a third center rail. Electric trains get their power from
the metal rails and require two paths for the electricity to flow
through and make a circuit (the paths are often referred to as
the "ground" side and the "hot" side). This might seem to make
a two-rail system ideal, where one track was ground and the other
hot, but in reality this arrangement often caused problems. In
a simple loop the outer track and inner track never met, so there
was no danger of a short circuit. If a track is set up so it loops
back on itself with a switch, the outer rail meets the inner rail
at the switch causing the "ground" and "hot" sides to short out.
Lionel standard guage engine from the 1920's. (Photo
With a three-rail system the center rail is always
the "hot" one and the outer rails are both "ground" so the track
could be laid out in any shape and there was never a problem.
The disadvantage of the third rail was that it was less realistic,
but manufacturers in the toy train market who were selling to
kids more than adults thought that having a simple, more durable
product was more important than modeling accuracy.
It was this competition between Lionel, American
Flyer and Ives that led to the association of electric toy trains
with Christmas. Lionel founder Joshua Cowen pushed the distributors
and stores that carried his products to incorporate them into
their Christmas displays, suggesting they would make wonderful
holiday presents. This, along with advertisements featuring Lionel
trains around Christmas trees, sealed the connection.
In addition to selling through the Christmas ads,
Lionel also used negative advertising to disparage its competition.
Its ads compared the durability of its tin-plated cars to the
Ives' cast iron cars by dropping both to the floor. In the advertisement
the cast iron toy was shattered into 15 pieces while the Lionel
car got just a couple of dents. However, unmentioned in the ad
was the fact that they were demonstrating Lionel's best product
line against Ives' cheapest.
Ives gondola car shows the details applied through the lithographic
printing method. (Photo courtesy of b.all)
Both American Flyer and Ives decorated their cars
by using lithographic printing. This allowed the metal surface
to have many painted-on details. The process was expensive, however,
and to save costs Lionel only painted theirs two solid colors.
Cowen turned this perceived deficiency into an advantage by using
bright and unrealistic colors on his trains. When asked why Lionel
did that Cowen replied that the majority of train sets were purchased
by mothers for their children, and the bright colors attracted
Ives sales were suffering under Lionel's advertising
onslaught, so in an attempt to combat Cowen's competition, Ives
dropped their 1 gauge trains and added standard scale. This came
too late, however, and the company went out of business in 1928.
American Flyer and Lionel purchased the company and operated it
jointly, putting their own labels on the trains.
A few years later, however, both Lionel and American
Flyer were suffering from the economic devastation of the Great
Depression. Iin an attempt to cut costs, Lionel dropped its standard
gauge products and went to O gauge. The smaller size of the trains
would mean less materials and lower costs. American Flyer, which
had switched to standard gauge to compete with Lionel, was also
forced back to O.
Lionel Christmas ad showing some of the trains and accessories
available in 1950. (Courtsey of Lionel
The depression was not uniformly bad news for toy
companies, however. In 1919 Louis Marx founded his company and
it grew significantly despite the poor economic environment. In1934
Marx would purchase Joy Line trains and start selling them under
the Marx label. As the years went on both Lionel and American
Flyer would find Marx to be stiff competition at the lower-priced
end of their product lines.
In the late 40's and early 50's as America emerged
from World War II to a booming economy, the toy train business
did well. This was perhaps the golden era for Lionel and it introduced
many new trains and accessories. The old tin-plated trains were
mostly gone and replaced by plastic. Plastic, though not as durable,
could be poured into molds. This allowed for more detail on a
Lionel introduced many innovations and accessories
for its trains. You could change the track your train took by
pulling a lever and electrically changing a remote switch. You
could pull your coal car up to a receiving yard, press a button
and it would dump its load. You could then move the train to a
coal loader and have the car refilled. You could split your train
in two by driving over a special track with a built-in electromagnet
and pressing an "uncouple" button. If you bought the automatic
switchman he would jump out of his shack and wave his lantern
at the engineer as the locomotive went by. There were accessories
that would take barrels off cars and others that would put milk
cans onto cars. There was a military car that fired rockets at
a box car that exploded when it was hit. Another one would launch
a helicopter into the sky. There was even a flatcar that would
deliver a NASA-style missile to a launch pad with retractable
smaller HO scale allowed model railroaders to pack whole
landscapes into a very limited space.(Copyright
Lee Kystek, 2011)
The whole time that the toy train business had been
developing a second marketplace, aimed at adults, had also been
getting underway. The hobby of model railroading, where enthusiasts
were more concerned about building an accurately running railroad
and less about toy-like gimmicks, started gaining adherents in
the years before WWII. These adult hobbyists demanded that their
trains be much more realistic. German toymakers pioneered this
market and introduced a gauge roughly half the size of O with
the tracks 0.650 inch (16.5 mm) apart and named it HO (for "Half
O"). Not only were the smaller trains cheaper, the smaller scale
also allowed modelers, who were often interested in building features
like scale-sized mountains and rivers, to fit much more scenery
in a given area. Most versions of HO that appeared were also two-rail
systems making the gauge more realistic. By the 1950's HO and
model railroading were becoming increasingly popular with Americans,
a trend noticed by both American Flyer and Lionel.
This led both of these manufacturers to try and
increase the realism on their own trains. American Flyer dropped
their O gauge line completely in 1947 and began manufacturing
a two- rail standard, slightly smaller than O gauge called "S"
(Not to be confused with the older standard gauge).
Lionel was too highly invested in three-rail O gauge
to make such a radical change, however, (though they did add a
line of HO products). In 1957, in attempt to make O more authentic,
Lionel introduced Super-O track. This new version of O kept the
center rail but minimized its appearance by employing a thin strip
of copper just wide enough to allow for electrical contact. The
tracks also used more lifelike brown-colored plastic sleepers
spaced realistically apart.
Christmas home display from the 20's shows how early the
idea of toy trains was linked with the holidays.
The increasing interest in model railroading was
also coupled with a decline in fascination in toy trains by children
and teenagers. Lionel and American Flyer's attempts to get into
the model railroading market were too late and by the late 1950's
both businesses were losing money. A.C. Gilbert Co., which owned
American Flyer, went bankrupt in 1966. Lionel purchased the rights
to the American Flyer name in May of 1967, though Lionel itself
was far from financially stable. Only four months later, Lionel
This wasn't quite the end of electric Christmas
trains, however. By the 1980's and 90's the baby boomers who had
grown up with O gauge toy trains were nostalgic for them. A collectors
market soon developed with authentic Lionel and American Flyer
trains going for many times their original cost. A new company
bought the rights to the Lionel name and began producing many
of the historic products from the old molds and tooling, in addition
to introducing new lines. It is even possible today to purchase
replicas of the earliest tinplate models from the 1920's era running
on Standard Gauge track.
G gauge, an updated version of the 1 gauge, has
also become extremely popular. Though it is a favorite of those
who enjoy outdoor "garden railroading," increasingly it has become
a popular scale for putting a loop around the Christmas tree.
Even HO, which is by far the most popular scale
for railroad modelers, has been able to make inroads in the Christmas
train market. For years it was very frustrating to try and put
a simple loop of HO on the carpet around your Christmas tree.
The tracks were designed to be nailed down to a hard surface and
a soft rug would easily cause derailments. Manufacturers eventually
solved this problem by creating an integrated roadbed with a mechanism
that allows the track to snap together. This approach allows HO
trains (and even N gauge trains, which are half as small as HO)
to run on a carpeted surface.
Baby vs. Christmas Train
So it looks like the electric trains of Christmas
will continue to be a secure tradition for many years to come.