“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.
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,” Saypol said. “He loved showing us how everything worked.”
“He taught us that kids can do anything, that we weren’t any different from the boys in what we were able to do,” 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, Josh 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, Cowen 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 — the first electric train was exhibited at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago — 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. Today there are many companies making toy trains of all sizes, some on tracks using electricity, some on the floor using wind-up springs.
One of the best places in Washington to see a big toy train display like the one Cathy and Amy saw as girls is the U.S. Botanic Garden. The big glass building at the foot of the U.S. Capitol has a single train running in one room and a bunch of trains in another big room. The train display is one of the most popular holiday attractions in the city.
“He loved to make children happy,” Saypol said of her great-grandfather. “And he still is.”
U.S. Botanic Garden: The display features trains running over 800 feet of track through miniature villages, mountains, drawbridges and more. 100 Maryland Avenue SW. Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Tuesdays and Thursdays until 8 p.m.). Through January 5. Free. www.usbg.gov/exhibits.
Brookside Gardens: The South Conservatory is filled with trains, plants, buildings and a miniature ice rink. 1800 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton. Daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Closed Christmas and New Year’s Day). Through January 5. Free. www.montgomeryparks.org/brookside.
The Ellipse: Toy trains run underneath the National Christmas Tree, behind the White House. The best entrance is at E and 17th streets NW. Daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. through January 1. Free. thenationaltree.org.
Union Station: The annual toy train exhibit runs in the main hall with two trains, 200 feet of track, a village, mountains and a forest for the trains to run through. 50 Massachusetts Avenue NE. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Through January 3. Free. www.unionstationdc.