Thursday, November 12, 2020

A Man Named Lionel—and a Train

By Kathy Kovach

November is a busy month! Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and hold elections, writers have NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month,) and of course, there’s my birthday! But a little-known recognition also happens in November—National Model Train Month. Thirty days to give in to one’s passion freely.

Model trains, not to be confused with toy trains, have been around a lot longer than I realized. I thought they started with the Lionel train, the brand being the quintessential ideal of to-scale locomotives, box and passenger cars, and layouts. More on that in a minute. 

Actually, long ago in 1784, designers began with miniature versions of the locomotives that they would later build and use as guides during initial production. In this way, they could see the mechanics and moving parts before tackling the big boys. Yes, model trains have been around longer than the actual trains themselves.                                       

Then came a young boy born in 1877 named Joshua Lionel Cowen. His parents were Jewish immigrants who came to America shortly after the Civil War. Joshua, the eighth of nine children, had a gift. At age seven, he built his first train and powered it with a wet-cell battery. 

A bright boy, he entered the College of the City of New York at the age of 16. Within six years, he received his first patent for a device that ignited a photographer’s flash, was granted a defense contract from the United States Navy to produce mine fuses, and started his own company with partner Harry C. Grant, calling it the Lionel Manufacturing Company in New York.

His gift didn’t lie so much in invention, however, as it did in marketing. With a passion for trains that never left the seven-year-old inside of him, he received the patent for his model train brand in 1899. With train and track in hand, he sold the Electric Express to a store in Manhattan, convincing them that it would draw attention to the merchandise they were selling for Christmas. The store owner came back and ordered six more because the customers wanted to buy the display.

By 1902, model and toy train m
anufacturing became Cowen's focus, and he started the Lionel Corporation. Model trains and layouts are for collectors, being more detailed in design. Toy trains are for the child who lays on the floor with his train and tries to keep the cat from knocking it off the tracks. 

Currently, there are different standard scales depicting various sizes of models. Ranging from the G scale, a large garden-sized train standardized in the 1960s, to Z scale, (1972), tiny enough to fit on a coffee table. The letter Z was chosen because it was the last letter of the alphabet, and it was thought that no smaller scale could be achieved. My husband, a huge enthusiast, prefers HO scale, which started in Europe but became popular in America around the mid-1930s.

Christmas and trains are synonymous, largely in part thanks to Joshua Lionel Cowen’s marketing efforts. In their prime, the 1950s, Lionel pulled in a quarter of a million dollars per year. 

Did I mention my birthday falls during Model Train Month? But if I’m gifted one, my husband and grandson would be sure to abscond with it. And that’s okay. Their smiles would be gift enough for me.

MissAdventure Brides Collection
Seven daring damsels don’t let the norms of their eras hold them back. Along the way these women attract the attention of men who admire their bravery and determination, but will they let love grow out of the adventures? Includes:
"Riders of the Painted Star" by Kathleen E. Kovach

1936 Arizona
Zadie Fitzpatrick, an artist from New York, is commissioned to go on location in Arizona to paint illustrations for an author of western novels and falls for the male model.

Kathleen E. Kovach is a Christian romance author published traditionally through Barbour Publishing, Inc. as well as indie. Kathleen and her husband, Jim, raised two sons while living the nomadic lifestyle for over twenty years in the Air Force. Now planted in northeast Colorado, she's a grandmother, though much too young for that. Kathleen is a longstanding member of American Christian Fiction Writers. An award-winning author, she presents spiritual truths with a giggle, proving herself as one of God's peculiar people.


  1. Very interesting! My father has had a "train table" as long as I can remember. It must have been a relaxing hobby for him after stressful days at work. After dinner he would go to the basement and fiddle for hours. I loved the little animals and people.

  2. Thanks for the post! I am always fascinated when I see a train table, especially when I know that it's largely handmade.

  3. This is so interesting, Kathleen, I remember my oldest brother having a Lionel train set. I don't think I ever played with it as I was very young and the train was very heavy.I also remember the smell of the metal on metal that as produced when it ran!

  4. Thanks, Linda, Connie, and Elaine! My hubs is an HO guy, but he doesn't buy Lionel because of the expense. They really are the Cadillac of trains. We bought a house with a basement that I thought would be perfect for his set, but we have too much stuff stored down there. Now he wants to get an office trailer to put on our property just for his trains. lol Obsess much?

  5. I like watching the trains, whether they're full size on the tracks outside of town, or hobby or toy trains. Grandpa had one that was incredible--but by the time I was old enough to appreciate it, it no longer ran. He tried to get it repaired and the repair guy tried to keep it, back many years ago, so the entire time I was growing up, it sat on top of the drapery rods in Grandma and Grandpa's living room.

    I think one of my uncles has it now.