Holiday History: Train Edition

Dec 16, 2020

Holiday History: Train Edition

Whether it’s the old Hollywood movies or the romanticism of taking the scenic route, something about trains brings up nostalgia, especially around the holidays. Think holiday train rides with hot chocolate and visits from Santa. And from going to see elaborate train displays in shop windows to growing up with a toy train circling the base of your Christmas tree, miniature trains are a national holiday tradition—one which started over 100 years ago.  

While real trains go back to the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 1800s, the first model wooden and metal trains weren’t made until the 1860s—in Europe. This evolved into cast-iron and wind-up trains around twenty years later. And finally, in 1901, inventor Joshua Lionel Cowen made the first electric train and introduced it to the world through his company, Lionel. To this day, Lionel is the gold standard of toy trains. Except now, trains like this Hogwarts Express have remote controls, puffing smoke and all the horns, whistles and bells you could want.

By the 1950s (16 years after Model Railroader Magazine began), seemingly every boy had a train set. Not only did model trains happen to circle Christmas trees in an almost too-perfect way, but they were also a natural development of the decades-long holiday tradition of building miniature scenes beneath the tree. Today, you can even have the North Pole Central train itself beneath your tree. And although it’s got LED lights, opening doors, Bluetooth controls and an app, you can easily pretend it’s just for the kids. 

Even though it’s long after America’s automotive revolution, and boys aren’t getting model trains as gifts en masse, trains are still a magical part of the holidays and holidays classics like the 1985 children’s book, Polar Express. And of course, you can have your very own miniature version of the train that made a Santa skeptic into a believer chugging around your Christmas tree this year. 


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