Trains have been a Christmas toy for more than a century

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Trains: The go-to Christmas toy

"It was like growing up with Santa Claus," Cathy Saypol said.

She's talking about her great-grandfather, Joshua Lionel Cowen, the New York inventor born in 1877. In 1900, he created maybe the most popular Christmas toy of the last century -- little electric trains that circle Christmas trees. More than 50 million Lionel train sets have been sold worldwide, and today Lionel produces more than 300 miles of track each year.

Ms. Saypol, 61, and her sister Amy Saypol Tompkins, 59, remember as girls visiting the Lionel showroom on Fifth Avenue in New York. The room was filled with trains blowing their whistles and racing around toy villages, farms and rivers, and snow-covered mountains.

"Josh -- everybody called him Josh -- would come out of his offices to play with us," Ms. Saypol said.

"He taught us that kids can do anything, that we weren't any different from the boys in what we were able to do," Ms. Tompkins said. While the sisters had a train around the tree at home, "just like everybody else, our train-playing time was the showroom with Josh."

Like many American inventors, Cowen, who died in 1965, was self-taught. According to history books, when he was 7 he carved a wooden toy train and tried to put a little steam engine on it. The engine blew up, but his parents and eight brothers and sisters didn't make a fuss.

As a 23-year-old working at an electric fan company, he dreamed up putting a little battery-powered fan motor onto a wooden toy train he called the Electric Express. He took it to a toy store, and they put it in the window to replace a train you had to push around by hand. Within days, Christmas shoppers snapped up six Lionel trains, and the company business took off.

While there were many toy train companies Cowen's invention beat them all, probably because he tied it to Christmas and produced the toy villages and other things to put around the tree and the train. Still, competition has not stopped.

"He loved to make children happy," Ms. Saypol said of Cowen. "And he still is."

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