Nowadays, a different toy zips to the top of the popularity polls before the holidays each year - Furby, Tickle Me Elmo, Sony PlayStation.
But it was different in the first half of the 20th century. Then, practically every little boy longed for an electric train - preferably a Lionel - beneath the tree on Christmas morning. Or, if he already had a train, he wanted a new engine, a cattle car (complete with animals), additional track, or a switchyard for his layout.
The story of how Lionel trains became "a treasured part of the American scene" is told by journalism professor and toy-train enthusiast Ron Hollander in "All Aboard," ($24.95, 288 pp., Workman Publishing). A revised and updated version has just been issued to commemorate 100 years since Joshua Lionel Cowen built his first electric train.
That first miniature railroad car wasn't for children at all - it bustled round the display window of a toy and novelty shop. But when the first customer who saw it, bought the car instead of the merchandise it carried, Cowen realized he had a winner.
A bang-up promoter, he pioneered selling toys through catalogs. The trains were marketed almost exclusively to boys and their dads. One of Cowen's advertising strategies was to emphasize that playing with trains was an ideal father-son activity. ("You will see [your son's] youthful affection transformed into a deep companionship that will keep him your friend for life" ran one ad.
By midcentury, tiny trains were big business. In 1952, Lionel produced 622,209 engines and 2,460,764 freight and passenger cars. Sales peaked in 1953 and dropped precipitously from then on. Today, Lionel trains are enjoying a resurgence among men who received their first trains decades ago.
"All Aboard" is aimed at the same crowd of collectors and aficionados. Its nostalgia-inducing photographs, diagrams, and drawings will bring back fond memories of a B&O steam engine puffing around a track, the haunting sound of its realistic whistle fading off into the distance. It will remind former Lionel owners of the crossing gateman who automatically came out of his shack with a lantern each time a train passed, coal cars that unloaded themselves, and realistic layouts that entranced dads and sons (and possibly a few mothers and daughters) alike. It's a fun read.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society