Historical objects can tell us many things. We've seen how the Lionel train that belonged to Ken's father-in-law can tell us about the technological level of the times, as well as its cultural values. This time, we look at how its function also says much about traditions and daily life.
How it was used
So who did Lionel make this 752E Union Pacific streamliner for, anyway? In 1934 there was no law requiring that toys be labeled for age-appropriateness (another cultural difference). And perhaps it's just as well. Lionel offered many toy trains of varying sophistication and prices for different age groups. Many had toy-like proportions instead of the scale-model look of the 752E. Clearly, this was not a toy for everyone.
The original price tag was in 1934 for this train set was $34. Not a lot? The equivalent price today would be about $500. This was not something to purchase on a whim and hand over to a child to leave out in the rain. In the heart of the Depression, such a purchase was an investment – and Lionel meant for their Union Pacific streamliner to be a worthy one.
The 752E (like other Lionel high-end products of the day) was solidly constructed and built to last. At the time many of these trains were purchased for family Christmas displays (sometimes called putzes). This practice had its origins in the late 1800’s, and adding a circle of track and an electric train to an elaborate winter scene around the Christmas tree was a natural progression. (The concept of the putz lives on, witness the continued growth of Department 56 figures and buildings).
As with many holiday decorations, these trains were generally carefully unpacked and set up just for the season. Afterward, they were just as carefully repacked and stored away for the rest of the year.
Many toy trains from before World War II tend to have similar stories. The more expensive ones are more likely to be found in their original boxes, and have evidence of wear and some scratches, but not hard use. Most damage comes from being stored in attics, where extreme temperature fluctuations fatigue the metals, or in basements, where moisture causes rusting over time.
Tomorrow: what an object tells us about its owner.
Part 1: Lionel's 752E and Technology
Part 2: Lionel's 752E and Cultural Values
Part 4: Lionel's 752E and Its Owner