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The Man Who Played With Trains: The Story of Joshua Lionel Cohen

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 4, 2023 3:03 am

The Man Who Played With Trains: The Story of Joshua Lionel Cohen

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 4, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, he was the man behind one of the top 5 toys of the twentieth century. Bill Bryk tells the story of the man behind Lionel trains.

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Happy streaming! This is brought to us by a regular contributor, Bill Bright, who brings us the story of the Lionel Train. Here's Bill with the story. Once American railroads dominated popular culture because they were the only means of fast land transportation. Now, there are other ways to get there from here. They seem less important and toy trains share the marginalization of their prototypes. For perhaps a decade after World War II, the technical, managerial and promotional genius of Joshua Lionel Cohen, founder of the Lionel Corporation, made his toy trains a solid part of American middle class boyhood. In 1952 alone, Lionel produced 622,209 engines and 2,460,764 freight and passenger cars.

Ron Hollander's delightful, lavishly illustrated biography of Cohen and his company, All Aboard, states that Lionel's 1952 production eclipsed the nation's railroads, which had a mere 43,000 locomotives and 1.8 million cars in service. Joshua Lionel Cohen was born on Henry Street in Manhattan's Lower East Side on August 25, 1877. He preferred playing ball, bicycling, hiking and tinkering with mechanical toys to formal education, and soon became fascinated with electricity, its transmission and its storage in batteries. In the labs at Peter Cooper Institute, he built what may have been, or what he claimed was, Cohen had no false modesty, the first electric doorbell. In 1899, he patented a device for igniting photographer's flash powder by using dry cell batteries to heat a wire fuse. Cohen then parlayed this into a defense contract to equip 24,000 Navy mines with detonators. His ignorance of armament manufacture did not stop him. He used mercuric fulminate, a sensitive and powerful explosive. His supplier's deliveryman told him, the company said you should always keep a good deal around.

It's better to be dead than maimed. In 1900, with $12,000 in profits, he began manufacturing electrical novelties at 24 Murray Street in Lower Manhattan as the Lionel Manufacturing Company. He was 23 years old.

Business was slow. He invented a battery-powered electric fan. He said, it was the most beautiful thing you ever saw. It ran like a dream and it had only one thing wrong with it.

You could stand a foot away from the thing and not feel any breeze. While walking on Courtland Street, a few blocks south of his offices, he stopped before Robert Ingersoll's toy store. Cohen was intrigued by store display windows, though he found most boring, and Ingersoll's was no exception.

It was full of cast-iron fire engines, balancing clowns and elephants on wheels, wind-up boats, and a tin locomotive on a pull string, all sitting lifeless. Cohen thought the constant motion of an electric toy might draw a crowd to the window. He looked at the locomotive again. Then he entered the store and sold Ingersoll on the idea that had just come to him on the sidewalk.

He soon returned with the first Lionel train, the Electric Express. It looked like an open wooden cigar box on wheels. As Cohen later said, I sold my first railroad car not as a toy, but as the first animated advertisement in New York outside of sandwich men and live demonstrators.

I sold it for four dollars. Well, sir, the next day he was back for another, the first customer who saw it bought the advertisement instead of the goods. Ingersoll ordered half a dozen more. Other stores ordered them, too.

Cohen had found his niche. In 1902, he produced his first electric trolley car, sold as a set with 30 feet of steel track. It cost $7. This was not cheap.

An industrial worker's wages for a six-day week then averaged $9.42. In 1906, he began using three rail track, which radically simplified electrical transmission. Now an operator could build an elaborate track layout with turnouts and reversing loops without complicated wiring. A year after that, his catalog listed trolleys, steam and electric locomotives, passenger cars and freight cars, all brightly painted and lettered for the New York Central, Pennsylvania, Lakeshore, and other railroads. Cohen did not lack competition, but Cohen beat them because he produced a reliable product with an expanding line of accessories and was an audacious promoter, selling his toys as educational because he knew parents needed a rationalization for their purchase. Knowledge of electricity is valuable, not only as a profession, but as an education, whether one is an electrical engineer or a bell hanger.

The kids couldn't have cared less. By 1912, Cohen had 150 employees. World War I stopped the import of German toy trains, and without serious domestic competition, Lionel became the dominant market player with its large, lavishly illustrated color catalogs, bringing the message to millions. By the late 30s, Cohen's models of the era's great locomotives, the New York Central's Hudson, the Milwaukee Road's Hiawatha, and the Jersey Central's Blue Comet, started, accelerated, slowed, and stopped in response to push-button remote controls. They pulled an endless cascade of boxcars, hopper cars, tank cars, and passenger cars. In 1929, Cohen unveiled the Transcontinental Limited, which stretched nine feet.

It cost $110, then more than a secondhand Ford Model T car. As John R. Stilgo noted in Metropolitan Corridor, his study of railroads in American culture, Lionel's catalogs emphasized the trains and their environment. The bridges, stations, signal towers, tunnels, and turntables all placed among twisting lines of track. Crossing signals with flashing lights, ringing bells, and descending gates protected the miniature citizens of Lionel City and Lionelville from onrushing expresses.

Expansion was interrupted only by World War II. By 1945, most Americans hungered for distractions. Cohen's vision of America, as reflected in his trains and accessories, struck the exact chord of nostalgia and progress, and the orders poured in. Lionel's showroom on East 26th Street in Manhattan held a huge layout with a four-track main line. Cars coupled and uncoupled, drawbridges rose and fell, and coal bunkers dumped coal into waiting hopper cars.

Cattle herded themselves into and out of stock cars. As trains passed through grade crossings, tiny crossing guards popped from their shacks to wave their lanterns. Whistles, chuffing sounds, and even smoke came out of the locomotives.

Cohen, who had handed over Lionel's presidency to his son, Lawrence, loved to spend hours among the crowds, occasionally providing expert advice to customers. Hollander recounts how Lawrence, who lived at Two Sutton Place, was awakened by his doorbell at 6 a.m. on Christmas Day. He found two small neighbors in pajamas who asked, Can you fix our trains? Understandably, their parents were still asleep.

Lawrence in bathrobe and slippers followed them up to their apartment. The president of Lionel soon had the trains running. Then he wished the boys a Merry Christmas and padded back downstairs to bed. The good times didn't last.

They never do. From 1953, Lionel's best year, to 1959, sales dropped by more than half. It was television.

Hollander noted that families got together to watch I Love Lucy, not to wire Lionel's new ice depot and watch a tiny man push blocks of ice down the open hatch of a toy refrigerator car. It was aging. As kids grew older, they became more interested in Elvis, James Dean, girls, and cars. And it was the decline of American railroads. Cohen's marketing genius had perfectly fit the nation's mood for perhaps eight years.

Then, suddenly, it didn't. In 1958, the company lost money for the first time since the Depression. In September 1959, Lawrence returned from a sales trip to the Far East to learn that his father and sister had sold their shares of stock to a group of businessmen led by Cohen's great nephew, Roy Cohen. Cohen paid $15 for each of his Lionel shares in 1959. Four years later, he sold them for $5.25.

Lionel survives to this day despite a string of bankruptcies and reorganizations. In 1999, A&E produced an hour-long show ranking the top ten toys of the 20th century. Lionel was number four, preceded only by the Yo-Yo, Crayons, and Barbie. If Cohen had been alive, he died on September 8, 1965, and was buried within hearing of a secondary freight line at the Long Island Railroad. The old promoter would have screamed in protest.

This was unfair. The trains should have come first. And great job, as always, by Robbie. And a special thanks to Bill Bryke to have done what Cohen managed to do, which is to create one of the great toys of the 20th century, ranked number four, the story of Joshua Lionel Cohen.

In the end, the story of the Lionel toy train, here on Our American Stories. Inspired by Ubisoft's famous video game series Assassin's Creed, the Echoes of History podcast offers a deep and fascinating dive into history. In this season's Assassin vs. Templars, these two organizations have a rich history that takes its root in the medieval era and the time of the Crusades within the Assassin's Creed universe. Hosted by Dan Snow and Matt Lewis from History Hit, each episode offers us a history of these two not-so-secret societies. New episodes weekly.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-04 04:46:18 / 2023-05-04 04:51:15 / 5

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