The marketing debacle in the late 1950s, a Lionel Girls' Model Train Set is a well known and sought-after collector's item today. Beyond the hobby of model railroading, the set is an interesting study in the history of marketing toys to children and women.
01 of 03
Should a Girl's Train Be Different?
Traditionally, model trains had been considered a boy's hobby. And Lionel itself had heavily marketed its trains towards fathers and sons. While the company had produced more traditional girls' toys in the past, including a working oven and range, for the most part, half of the childhood population had been ignored.
In 1957 Lionel looked for a way to expand their market reach by appealing to young girls and moms. Heedless of the fact that any girl who wanted a model train would want... their train to be realistic, just like the boys did, Lionel introduced their now famous Girl's Set, an electric train set in various pastel hues.
02 of 03
Perfect for a Little Girl's Bedroom
The Girls' Set was a three-rail O27 electric train set with a pink 2-6-4 steam locomotive and tender. It included a string of the following pastel-hued cars:
- Robin's Egg Blue New York Central Pacemaker Boxcar
- Buttercup Yellow Missouri-Kansas-Texas Boxcar
- Pink New York Central Gondola with Barrels
- Lavender Lehigh Valley Hopper
- Pennsylvania Sky Blue Illuminated Caboose
Track and a power pack were also included. Aside from the colors, the train was a copy of traditional sets in the catalog... including the railroad names on the cars.
Unlike previous ads which targeted fathers and sons, advertising for this set featured a mother and daughter in the background.
It is often said that fathers bought trains for their sons in part as an excuse to have one for themselves. And promotion of father-son bonding was common in the Lionel advertising. It is worth considering whether marketing traditional trains as a way for fathers to bond with daughters as well could have been more effective for sales and familial relationships.
03 of 03
Whatever Happened to Girls Sets?
The sales of the girls' train were an unmitigated disaster. The failure of the set has been largely attributed not to a lack of interest in trains by young girls but their interest in trains themselves. It stands to reason that anyone who wants a toy train would be drawn to those that look most like real trains.
In 1958, Lionel bought back many sets from retailers and repainted them for resale.
But years later their rarity turned them into collector's items. In fact, finding evidence of... pastel paint under the standard colors of a 1958 train set is like finding buried treasure for the collector. At the height of the market, originals were selling for thousands of dollars.
In 1991 Lionel reissued them just for collectors. In 2006, Williams produced a replica Girls' set and a second Girls' set as well. This second set had the same freight cars and caboose with a pink GG-1 locomotive instead of the 2-6-4 steamer and tender. K Line and MTH have also produced similar trains as well as additional sets inspired by the original. Lionel's most recent re-release came in 2010.
Thousands of women of all ages enjoy the hobby of model railroading today. How many started on a Girls' Train? Probably not many. But the pastel train set is an interesting chapter in the history of model trains and marketing none the less.
Edited by Model Trains Expert Ryan Kunkle.