Joshua Lionel Cowen

Joshua Lionel Cowen

He fed our dreams

Hank Morris

(There’d Be No Trains Under Your Tree)


The eighth of nine children, Joshua Lionel Cohen (he later changed it to Cowen) was born in New York City on August 25, 1877. “Urban legend” says on September 5, 1900, Joshua and a colleague from Acme, Harry C. Grant, filed to conduct business in a cramped third floor loft at 24 Murray Street in Lower Manhattan. While the document was indeed signed and witnessed on September 5, 1900, subsequent research revealed that, for whatever reason, it wasn’t filed with the appropriate governmental authority until September 27, 1900.

Toy trains

While walking through lower Manhattan, Joshua stopped at a toy store window where he saw a push train. He envisioned it going around a circle of track without needing attention. This vision started a legend. Joshua fitted a small fan motor under a model of a railroad flatcar, and his first electric train, the Electric Express was born; not as a toy, rather as a display in toy store windows.  (The first display was in the Ingersol Shop in NY.) He gave his middle name and called it the “Lionel.” The track was two steel strips inserted into slotted ties with a 2-7/8 inch width between the rails (gauge). Instead of drawing people’s attention to the wares being sold, customers wanted to buy the display more than the merchandise.

1901 (and possibly 1900) saw the first Lionel catalog published and in 1904 Joshua married Cecelia Liberman. Lionel’s workshop moved nine blocks north, and Cowen hired Italian Immigrant, Mario Caruso. In future years Mario kept the factory running smoothly while Joshua managed sales.

The birth of the 3rd rail

In 1906, a massive change occurred; Lionel added an insulated third rail in the center to carry the current leaving the outer rails to be the ground rails. The gauge was resized to 2-1/8 inches apart. He called it “Standard Gauge,” and had the name copyrighted. This system, due mainly to Joshua’s clout, was adopted by most other manufacturers, giving Lionel the advertising slogan, “The Standard of the World.” By 1915, to compete with other manufacturers, Lionel was forced into producing O-gauge trains (1-1/4 inch track width).

It was 1910, electric trains had become a big business and, lured by tax breaks offered by its chamber of commerce, Lionel moved to New Haven, Connecticut. In 1915, tired of commuting from New York City, Joshua moved the factory to Newark, N.J. Due to increased sales and war orders, more room was needed. Mario Caruso picked a site in nearby Irvington, N.J., the first of a series of Lionel plants there.

In the later half of the decade the train line remained stagnant. At this time Lionel was also filling Navy contracts for compasses, binnacles, and signal and navigational equipment. Because of the company’s expansion, it was reorganized as simply the Lionel Corporation on July 22, 1918 with Joshua Cowen as president.

Golden Age

The first “Golden Age” for Lionel, the Roaring Twenties, provided ample money supply for such commodities as electric trains. During this decade, Lionel made the most fanciful and elaborate pieces it ever produced. Lionel’s replicas paralleled the growth and development of U.S. railroads. This is when such accessories as the two-foot-square power station, the large model of New York’s Hellgate Bridge, and a foot-long switch tower were made. Some passenger cars had removable roofs so you could see inside where there were even bathrooms with movable toilet seats. They became classics; even the company’s catalogs and advertisements were classics.

The prosperity of the ’20s didn’t last. Lionel didn’t experience the effects of the 1929 Black Friday stock market crash until 1930, when factory orders bottomed out. Partially as a result of this, 1931 was the company’s first loosing year, by $207,000. The cost of a Blue Comet 400E engine roughly equaled that of a three-piece bedroom set or a used Model T Ford.

Joshua personally lost a great deal of money in the market crash and in 1930, but rather than sell off part of the company or face bankruptcy, Cowen placed in receivership.

Joshua and Walt Disney made news during the Depression, when an ingenious $1 wind-up hand car on a circle of two-rail track was introduced-with two passengers, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, happily pumping their way into America’s hearts. More than 253,000 were sold. Meanwhile, real railroads were having a rough time and began introducing all sorts of streamlined trains. As they did, Lionel introduced O-gauge models. The Union Pacific’s City of Portland (M10000) used die-castings for the front of the locomotive and the frames.

1934 was the first year in four that Lionel earned a profit. So much so, that all debts were paid off and the receivership ended January 21, 1935. Although one of the receivers credited the Disney hand car, it actually made little money because it was sold so cheaply. It was Lionel’s streamliners that brought in the profits to save the company.

The First Whistle

In 1935, Charles Giaimo invented Lionel’s first whistle in a model train, which was immediately installed in the streamliners. The whistle was an instant success. It was based on the sounds of real railroad whistles that had been recorded for study. The chamber Charles Giaimo designed produced a deep-throated railroad whistle sound when air was forced into its chambers. It was a marvel of design simplicity. In use, a separate motor and fan was connected to the chamber to provide the flow of air.

The whistle was mounted in the tender and connected to a D.C. relay that wouldn’t close while normal A.C. current was being used to run the train. When a special button was pushed on the controller, D.C. current was superimposed over the A.C., causing the whistle relay to close and the whistle motor to run, “blowing” the whistle.

In 1937, to highlight the scale model aspects of its product line, Lionel introduced the 700E, the “Holy Grail” of Lionel Trains. This model, based on the New York Central’s 4-6-4 Hudson, was so spectacular Joshua could command and justify a list price of $75 during the Depression. In order to make the 700E affordable to the “common man,” it was offered as a series of kits that resulted in the finished locomotive.

Paper trains

By the time the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lionel had $5.5 million in government contracts. The last year trains were made until after the war was 1942. To preserve its train market during the war, Lionel sold a paper train and a railroad planning book. These beautifully printed cutouts were designed to resemble actual items in Lionel’s pre-war product line, and comprised a complete set of trains and accessories. During the war, Lionel occasionally ran ads announcing “the best is yet to come,” hinting at a plethora of innovation to be unveiled at wars’ end. Lionel followed with the Lionel Railroad Planning Book, intended to help boys start designing their new, larger postwar layouts.

The glory years

As the war wound down, Lionel prepared to resume full-out train production. The day after Japan surrendered Lionel’s war orders were terminated, it had all sorts of new innovations ready. The only set produced in 1945 was rather small, but it offered knuckle couplers. The two biggest postwar features were the knuckle coupler and smoke. The smoke was produced by a pellet dropped into the smokestack and heated, first by a light bulb with a dimple on top and later by a coil.

Throughout the late ’40s and early ’50s Lionel produced a huge array of accessories and locomotives such as the Pennsy S2, twenty-wheeled steam turbines, and the massive GG1s. It was then that the dual-motored EMD F3 Santa Fe and NYC diesels were built. In October 1950, a great celebration of the company’s 50th anniversary was held and the employees gave Joshua Cowen a gold-plated F3 diesel.

By 1953, with reported revenues then of more than $33 million, Lionel was the world’s largest toy company. The late ’50s saw the train market severely decline due to a recession, the increasing popularity of HO gauge and the invention of model slot cars.

One of Lionel’s greatest failures was the pastel “girl’s train” in 1957. Lionel finally “allowed” girls to have their own trains, offering them in a range of soft and unrealistic colors that an out-of-touch management thought would appeal to the youngsters. It flopped! Today, this fiasco is a highly sought-after collectible.

By 1958 Joshua was 81 and no longer at the helm. By the end of that year, Lionel was $1.2 million in the red. The next year Joshua sold all of his stock to his nephew, the infamous attorney, Roy Cohn. Lawrence was in the Orient at the time and was so disillusioned by his father’s action that he too, sold his stock to Cohn. As a result, when he returned, most of the company’s administration had resigned and were replaced by Cohn’s men.

By the 1960s, Lionel trains staggered and faltered. Freight lines were being scrapped, passenger trains were dying, and fathers and sons were on opposite sides of the “generation gap.” The decade saw the tragic demise of New York’s Pennsylvania Station, the retirement of The Twentieth Century Limited, and the passing of Joshua Lionel Cowen, who died in 1965 at the age of 88.

This article is condensed from one with the same name published in National Railway Bulletin Volume 67, No. 2, 2002. Copies and membership information can be obtained from National Railway Historical Society, 100 N. 17th St., Philadelphia, PA 19103.

reprinted by permission from The National Railway Bulletin, Volume 67, Number 2, 2002