February 8, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Joshua Lionel Cohen

Joshua Lionel Cohen was not much impressed with store displays as he window-shopped on the streets of New York City in 1901. What was needed, he thought, was some sort of eye-appealing action display. He went home to fashion a toy train to pull the merchandise around the store window.

Cohen created an unlikely looking gondola car with a small fan motor under the car. He attached a dry cell battery directly to the track and there was no way to regulate the speed. He called his new train car the "Electric Express" and sold it to a store owner for $4.

The next day Cohen had to make another train car. It seems people were buying the advertisement, not the goods. Soon Cohen was spending long hours in a cramped third floor loft with his new electric toy train business. He named his new company the Lionel Manufacturing Company, after his middle name. "I had to name it something," Cohen would shrug later.

The first toy electric train was adapted in 1835 by a struggling New York blacksmith as a demonstration of how electricity could be used for America's new railroads. He couldn't sell the concept and the first electric trolley wouldn't operate for another 50 years.

Through the 1800s toy trains were pull toys, propelled by springs or fueled by burning alcohol. By 1877, when Joshua Cohen was born the eighth of nine children to an immigrant cap-maker, steam engines were popular.

Cohen was not studious but became fascinated with electricity and the storage of power. He dropped out of the City College of New York and Columbia University to take an apprentice position assembling battery lamps. In 1899 Cohen received his first patent for a device igniting a photographer's flash, called a "Flash Lamp."

The United States Navy was interested in Cohen's invention, but not to take photographs. They gave Cohen an order for 24,000 devices as detonators for mines. With the Navy order filled Cohen had a stake for his own business. He had a company but no product.

Cohen experimented with a flashlight and an electric fan but settled on his electric trains. Carlisle & Finch in Cincinnati had been selling electric trains since 1896 and Cohen quickly realized he needed more excitement from his product than a gondola. He introduced a trolley car called "City Hall Park."

The first Lionel train set, made entirely of metal, included 30 feet of track. "Every feature is carried out to the minutest detail," boasted Cohen's ads. The set sold for $7 with a primitive battery at a time when the average worker's salary was $9.42 and a Kodak camera sold for $1. The expensive electric train became a special toy for special occasions like Christmas and birthdays.

From the beginning Cohen realized the importance of accessories and his first 16-page catalog in 1902 emphasized suspension bridges and tunnels as well as trains. In 1903 the first Lionel locomotive was available. In 1906 Cohen completely revamped the Lionel line by adding a trademark third rail to carry the electric current like real city railroads.

The toy train business grew increasingly competitive, especially with foreign manufacturers, and Cohen, who changed his name to "Cowen" in 1910, hammered away relentlessly at his competitors, boasting of Lionel quality in ads. Cowen's "wish book" catalogs fascinated children and sales climbed over two million dollars by the 1920s. In the peak years of the 1950s the Lionel catalog would be one of the most widely distributed catalog in America, behind only general merchandise retailers Sears and Montgomery Ward.

Lionel trains were hard hit by the Depression. Cowen essentially had a one product company and an expensive one at that. He introduced an electric range for girls but it was overdesigned and sold for $29.50, more than a teacher made in a week, and few were sold. Cowen became embroiled in a bank scandal involving his brother-in-law damaging his ability to borrow money and Cowen was forced to put Lionel Manufacturing into receivership in 1934.

The company was saved by new streamlined trains and the introduction of a train whistle that faded away like the real thing in 1935. Lionel created a handcar with Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse which became their biggest seller. During World War II Lionel Manufacturing converted over totally to military production but in peacetime the company was ideally positioned to become an integral part of post-war culture.

In 1948 Lionel brought out the Santa Fe diesel. The sleek silver, red and yellow engine became Lionel's all-time best seller, so popular that Cowen was able to get railroads to pay for using their name. In 1952, the company's 50th anniversary, Lionel was producing 622,209 engines and 2,460, 760 cars. All real-life railroads combined had 43,000 engines and 1,800,000 cars.

The glory years lasted less than a decade. By 1958 airplanes were carrying more passengers than railroads for the first time. The romance of the train was ending and little boys grew up wanting to be pilots, not engineers. In the toy business a new half-sized toy train, HO scale, was sweeping the market. Model race cars were taking the place of trains under Christmas trees.

Cowen, who was forced to take the company public in the bleak years of the Depression, was increasingly disenchanted with Lionel management. Electric cattle guards and stereo cameras were produced with disastrous results. An attempt to attract girls with a completely fake pink train set was even worse. In 1959 Cowen sold his shares in Lionel to his great-nephew Roy Cohn for $825,000, causing his son to lose control of the company.

Cowen enjoyed golf and tennis but his passion was always trains. Each year he and his wife took a train trip to the west coast and sailed to Hawaii for 8-10 weeks before returning home by rail. But as he retired to Florida both Cowen and his former company quickly disassociated themselves from each other. The first economy move of the new management group was to sell Cowen's prized collection of antique Lionel trains he kept in the company showroom.

When Cowen died in 1965 no mention of his passing was made at Lionel's next board meeting. For his part, Cowen's headstone read "Joshua L. Cohen", making no mention of the Lionel name which stirred dreams of boys the world over.

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