Climb Aboard the Holiday LIGHTS Express! - Cheekwood
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Climb Aboard the Holiday LIGHTS Express!

Published: 12/16/2019

This year, we have a festive display of one of America’s most popular holiday customs, Christmas trains. Holiday LIGHTS Express: Antique Toy Trains is an exhibition of model trains from the 1920s and 1930s set in the traditionally decorated Cheekwood Recreation Room. Ever since December 1900, model trains altered the toy making industry with their ingenuity and authenticity, making them a longstanding high-demand Christmas gift for decades. Whether it was a Lionel or American Flyer model, tots of the 1920/30s had trains at the top of their holiday wish-list.


The first locomotive steam engine was invented in Great Britain in 1802 during the Industrial Revolution (c. 1760 – 1830). This icon of power, ingenuity, and progressivism altered more than the modernizing industrial world. Its influence also transformed the toy industry, making its way into the hearts and holiday customs of families worldwide. By the early-twentieth century, model trains had instantly become a fixture at the top of nearly every child’s wish-list.

Individualized model toy trains first appeared in Europe in the 1860s. Just a few decades later, the first standardized gauge model train was the ingenious invention of German toymaker, Märklin, in 1891. The first Märklin model contained a wind-up engine with several cars that ran upon a standardized size track. However, when the popular demand for toy trains reached America, the power source and gauge size altered.

A new national phenomenon began in December 1900, when American toymaker Joshua Lionel Cowen brought one of the country’s greatest Christmas traditions to life. The Electric Express, as it was called, was a tin locomotive pulled train powered by an electric fan motor and acid-filled batteries. In no time, it charmingly stole the spotlight in the Christmas display windows of popular New York City toy stores. Although not intended for sale, the Lionel Corporation soon received unending requests for model trains just like the Electric Express, making toy trains synonymous with the holiday season forevermore.


Lionel’s earliest models in the 1910s and 1920s were eye-catching brightly painted tin trains made in a size known as Standard Gauge. With creative marketing, early Standard Gauge models operated under a similar strategy as dollhouses in that each year children could acquire and enhance their train sets with various add-ons and accessories. This initiative saw great success, and by the end of World War I, Lionel was one of three major toy train manufacturers in the United States. Other popular competitors were American Flyer and Ives. Lionel acquired Ives in the mid-1920s and began expanding their model train technology, allowing them to reverse and change direction.

The Great Depression took a heavy toll on the toymaking industry and Lionel, although wildly popular, did not escape untouched. Lionel’s operating budget had been over $500,000 in 1927 and fell to just $82,000 by 1930. Toy trains became a luxury item. The price for a single train car or engine could cost more than the average annual income of a family. One of Lionel’s most impressive locomotives, the No. 400E, retailed for $42.50, similar in price to a used Ford Model T. Lionel barely avoided bankruptcy during the Great Depression, but bounced back to see its most successful decades in its history during the late-1940s through the 1950s with smaller gauge trains and new technological enhancements.

On display in the Recreation Room inside the Historic Mansion & Museum are several Standard Gauge model trains and accessories that would have been popular during the eras of the Cheek family and holidays at Cheekwood in the 1930s. Experience the railroad magic of holiday’s past at during our daytime hours and at night during Holiday LIGHTS until January 5.

Learn more about Holiday LIGHTS Express: Antique Toy Trains here, and don’t miss our outdoor train exhibit located in the Turner Seasons Garden!

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