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Christmas Story: 1953

Christmas 1953. Oak Park, Illinois. My cousin Tom experiencing the thrill of his first Lionel electric train. My Uncle Bill is manning the transformer, and my dad, who was a real-life railroad engineer, is on the right. 35mm slide. View full size.

Christmas 1953. Oak Park, Illinois. My cousin Tom experiencing the thrill of his first Lionel electric train. My Uncle Bill is manning the transformer, and my dad, who was a real-life railroad engineer, is on the right. 35mm slide. View full size.

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My cousin Tom, the boy in the photo...

turned 68 this year. Sobering perspective on just how long ago this was!

I can smell the coal smoke from the furnace

Great picture. I love how the kid's old man gets to run the locomotive, his Uncle is playing Conductor and the kid gets to be Switchman! Gotta pay your dues kid! Looks like they just setout the hopper and tank car and are about to back the engine to re-couple onto the NYC gondola and caboose. A very similar scene played out in many households of the era. I like the Hamilton or Gruen wristwatches that the guys are wearing too.

Maker of lead foil tinsel

I'm not sure if anyone is still looking for lead foil tinsel - the stuff some of us fondly remember from our childhood.

It's available from Riffelmacher and Weinberger in Germany. Or rather it's shown in their wholesale catalogue. See p 50 of their 2010 Christmas catalogue, Item 91152 is silver ... exactly what we all remember!

Now your only challenge may be ordering in bulk from Germany.

Disney train set

When I was 5 (back in 1970), my parents bought me a Disneyland Monorail train set. My father had it already assembled for me on a large piece of plywood that had been covered in green fake grass, and had miniature buildings to go with it. Considering what that original set would be worth today, I almost wish he had just left it sealed in the box. All that I have remaining from the original set is the 12v-18v transformer.

A (real) Christmas story

My brothers (who were 18 and 9 years older than me) made me a train set for my 5th or 6th Christmas -- I walked into the garage while they were painting the board and I asked if I could help and they told me they were painting a sign and I could help paint it green. When I got it Christmas morning I was the most surprised boy in the world. It was a great gift that I helped make without knowing!

Tinsel and Snow

Like Older than Yoda, I can remember taking the (metal foil) tinsel, which we always called icicles, off the tree and saving it. As soon as the plasticky stuff came out, that was the end of that. Another long-gone Christmas memory was a box of mica chips of that Mama would sprinkle on the cotton batting at the base of the tree. That box lasted years and years. When you had parents that came up during the Depression, you learned about saving. My dad: "Turn off some of these lights, this place looks like a hotel!"

We used tinsel also

That brings back memories. We would go to the woods and cut the "cedar" tree. My family had a flocking machine, and several households on the street would put their tree up the same day, so the flocking machine would only have to be used once per year. We also used to take a strand of tinsel, wedge it in between our front teeth, and blow. I don't know why that was so much fun but it was.

American Flyer, no Lionel

Great picture ... we all laid our heads on the track and watched the train coming right at us. This is actually an American Flyer 3 rail O gauge train. It was made before WWII. After the war American Flyer went to 3/16" to the foot S-gauge two rail track.

[If it's not a Lionel, why does it say LIONEL LINES on the tender? - Dave]

Another tinsel comment

Growing up in the later 50s and 60s, we also did tinsel every year. Like many others, we would save it from year to year until it was too crinkled to hang right. Then we'd have to get one or two new packages, probably from Woolworth's or "the drugstore" since Target and Walmart were not born yet. We kids also tossed it up to the top of the tree. These days, I want to get some but my wife says no - you can't recycle it with the tree, she says. Too messy. Too bad. I did see some this year at Target, except the 'new' tinsel has that prismatic glimmer to it where it reflects like a rainbow, not like regular silver stuff. I'll kep trying.

You made my day, Grumpy

Glad this evoked a fond memory for you, as well as for so many others.

I just wanted you to know

I just wanted you to know that you brought a tear to the eye of this grumpy old man, remembering the exact same scene from his childhood.

Thank you.

California Tinsel

I have to think our state banned tinsel production due to environmental concerns, because it's virtually nowhere to be found.

I say "virtually," because Michael's has it. No tinsel at the dollar stores and such. At Michael's it is in packages that need to be cut. The tinsel comes attached at the top. Same stuff.

Thanks to Michael's, our tree looks like this one.

[I think its scarcity might be due more to child-safety concerns. - Dave]

Tinsel information

To RoverDaddy who is looking for tinsel, try the cheap, cheap, cheap stores. I found it at Dollar General Store but also Family Dollar Store, Dollar Tree and other bargain centers are most likely to have it. You can see I am the last of the big spenders and I have to add that one time when my mother was removing tinsel to save it for the next year, my father asked her, with a straight face, if she was going to make tinsel soup, as she always stretched the life out of a dollar by making lots of soups and stews.

Retinseling 2

And I thought my family was the only one who did this, except we didn't put it on cardboard. All the tinsel went into a cardboard shoe box, year after year. We would add maybe one package of new tinsel every couple of years. The new tinsel would hang straight while the old would be more and more crinkly over the years. My sister & I had to put it on one strand at a time (except when Mom wasn't looking). Being from the Depression era as my mother was, I'm sure that box of tinsel is still up in the attic to this day. Our cat also loved the taste of tinsel, with predicable results.

Where can I find tinsel?

This year I'd love to introduce my kids to the fun of cheap old shiny plastic tinsel (yes I'm a masochist for wanting to clean up the mess later). Unfortunately, I can't seem to find the stuff anywhere! Does anybody still make plastic 'icicles' as the package often called them, or have they been made extinct by concerns over fire hazards and unfortunate pets?

All That to be an Engineer????

I can't tell you how envious I am of your father.

When I was in the ninth grade one of my teachers decided to play guidance counselor and advise me on what courses to take in high school. She asked what I wanted to be and I told her I would like to be an engineer. She told me I should take Algebra II, Calculus, Physics, etc etc etc.

I sat there in stunned amazement thinking, "All that just to drive a train????" When it dawned on me that we were talking about two entirely different things I was too embarrassed to correct her.


Yup, we did the tinsel thing too, but we were thrifty New Englanders, and my mother took at least some of the stuff OFF the tree every year and carefully put it on cardboard to use it again the following year. My grandmother, bless her, had the job of untangling the resulting mess and handing each of us little handfuls to drape over the branches one by one. Needless to say, we weren't allowed to throw it because then it couldn't be taken off.

Xmas Express

Our house had a very similar Christmas morning about 25 years later. My dad found a second train in a garage he was tearing down. I got them out last Christmas and they still run. I put a video on our site.

Too much tinsel...

My mother would always complain that my father and I put too much tinsel on our trees. And our beloved Cocker Spaniel, Sherman loved the taste of tinsel.


Well this brings along even more memories. I was born in '65 and I remember playing with a train like this in '68 or '69. I do not remember what brand (Lionel or American Flyer), but I do remember putting in a pill pushing a button or something and it would smoke when I pushed it. I remember pissing Daddy off because every time the train would go in front of the TV while he was watching it, I would push that button! Talk about pushing Daddy's button!!! I also remember throwing tinsel on the tree, Daddy helping, and Mom getting upset with both of us. In addition, we also had those bubble lights. After they warmed up they would start bubbling. I need to go lie down and look at Shorpy some more and see what else I can remember.

Windows 53

Love those window blinds.

All our cats have eaten tinsel. It makes the litter box more festive. We use both kinds -- short hunks of garland and the stringy silver "icicle" stuff. I too heave the stuff at the tree rather than place it carefully.

Dave, I think Anonymous at 11:25 was talking about the train in tterrace's photo.

[You are so smart. Thank you! - Dave]

Kids Again

I love this photo because the uncle and the dad are suddenly about 9 years old too.

Lead-foil tinsel

The tinsel on a tree of this vintage is probably made of lead foil. The good news is that it was reusable year after year. The bad news is that you could get lead poisoning from ingesting it!

Lead foil tinsel has long since been removed from the market, along with several other dangerous items from Christmases past!


Voices from the kitchen

Love this photo! While the menfolk are intent on the train, I can hear Grandma and the aunts in the kitchen talking over each other while getting Christmas dinner ready. Is the turkey done? Did you hear about Great Aunt Stella? She's already wrecked that brand new beautiful car. Mom, that's enough gravy for an army! Did Bill get you that brooch you've been wanting, Madge? And, naturally they're all wearing dresses, heels and festive aprons. This photo is CLASSIC.

Gift it

I gave my 1948 3/16 model American Flyer to my grandson last Christmas. Much better than selling.

The Rug

What really caught my eye is that rug -- a dead ringer for one we had for many years! My dad got it at Barker Brothers in 1943. The hopper car and caboose also look exactly like the ones from my Lionel train set from the late '50s, though the rest is different.

Alas ...

In 1954, just after we moved into our spiffy suburban ranch house, my uncle started a large 8 x 16 Lionel O-gauge layout in the basement. Presumably for me, or so he said.

After everyone died off, I inherited the six large boxes of trains and all the fixin's. Fifteen years ago I sold the lot for $450 to a dealer. Dumb move.

But revenge is sweet as I have just started construction on a huge (roughly 100 x 150) garden train layout behind the house.


My own American Flyer set of that era had tablets that, when dropped into the locomotive's smokestack, would emit little puffs of real smoke.

Lionel 027

It's 027, the less expensive Lionel product compared to big heavy "O". Same gauge, lower rail, slightly sharper curves, simpler switches. We had a mixture of both, purchased used from various sources, and we figured out ways to use the 2 sizes together.

That switch is a manual 027 one, with no lighted position indicator, we had a pair of them. Didn't make the satisfying "clack" sound that the "O" manual switches did when you threw the lever. We never had remote control switches, since you could buy more manual ones for the same money.

Some "O" gauge equipment couldn't operate on 027, the curves were too sharp.

Made a serious mistake about 30 years ago, sold all of it except a couple special cars.

The Train Don't Stop Here No More

My Dad had a huge 60's-70's Lionel train set, with all the accessories: the lighted passenger cars, the little signal box with the trainman who would come out, holding his lantern when a train went by, and even the Giraffe Car. Anyone remember the Giraffe Car?

Several locos too, both steam and diesel, and that big control transformer with the power supply handles on both ends. The whole setup ran on a plywood table, about 6 x 8, which he built himself. Sadly, when he died, my mother sold the whole outfit for a hundred bucks, and today it would probably be worth ten times that much. I wish I still had it!

How we tinseled

Around our house, we would always begin with laboriously stringing one strand of tinsel at a time on a barren branch until it was somewhat filled. Yet invariably, we two boys would get rambunctious and throw a handful up where we couldn't reach. And Mom, patient Mom, would sigh and give us permission to begin the fusillade of tinsel throwing that produced a Christmas tree neatly stranded with tinsel about 3 feet up, but above that utter disorder that only little boys could love. But I hasten to add the "tidy line" rose as we grew. Making a much happier mom.

Nothing to add.

I have nothing to add. Just love this picture and reading all your comments -- the wallpaper is killer. Shorpy forever.

Chestnuts roasting on an open plasma

This picture just radiates warmth and good cheer. We're leaving it up all night on our plasma display. It's better than a fireplace!

Thanks, and Merry Christmas to you.

My Dad and Uncle have passed on, but Tom - who's now in his sixties - still has that Lionel train set. Last time I was at his house he had it set up in his basement, along with several accessories he's accumulated over the years.

[We're all glad he finally got to play with it! And thanks for this wonderful photo. - Dave]

I love this blog . . .

It is threads like this that keep me hooked on this blog. It's comforting to know I'm not the only whack job walking around unattended.

Las Vegas

Now That's Christmas!

Real Tinker Toys, the "real" old-school Lionel train sets, and not those modern knockoffs made by a company that simply owns the name. What do kids get today? Lead lined Chinese plastic "toys" from Wal-Mart.

Boy, give me that old fashioned Christmas anytime.

Cat Tinsel

Without the prompting of previous posters I wouldn't have mentioned that during the Christmas season at our house our Siamese cat Tabetha would walk around with a piece of what she usually left in her litter box instead dangling from a piece of tinsel she had once presumably eaten. That's the most tasteful way I can explain it.

A way of life

As they say, a way of life gone with the wind.


I agree, it's probably a Lionel in tterrace's photo. I had an American Flyer I received for Christmas in 1948. American Flyer did not have the middle rail in the track.


Looks like the transformer is a Lionel model 1033 (made from 1948-'56). I have one of these units, still in perfect working condition. As far as I know, the only maintenance it ever had was the replacement of the power cord, due to the insulation drying out and cracking (a common problem). I never cease to be amazed at how durable those old Lionels are. Great picture!

Twin tops?

It appears that someone improvised and used some of the TinkerToy pieces to make stands for the 'billboard' signs.

It also looks like the Tinkertoy was also a present that may have been wrapped in aluminum foil. And, there appear to be two identical toys in the picture, possibly spinning tops.

Great picture!

Simulated mountains

Very good, Catherine. I usually have to explain to people what the pillows are doing behind my toys in a number of my photos from back then. These we had retained from our old chesterfield which had been relegated to a slow, moldering death in the basement a couple years back. If you could look above them, you'd see my mother's renowned curtains and drapes.

We never used tinsel ourselves, but I remember enjoying it when we'd visit friends or relatives who did. Those were the days when tinsel was made of, or mostly of, lead. I liked to slip strands off and ball them up into little wads or, better yet, if there were lighted candles around and nobody was watching, dangle them in the flame and watch them melt. Don't tell anybody.


I don't know ... because it's shiny and stringy and fun to play with? My cat would go crazy for the stuff, as would most cats I've owned. Maybe even the pets were perfect in the 50s. It was just a question.

[It was an excellent tinsel question. Speaking of which: Garlands or icicles? We were always a garland family. Not that there's anything wrong with icicles. - Dave]

Re: Tinsel hazards

Why would pets be eating tinsel in the first place? None of ours ever touched the stuff. I grew up in the tinsel-lovin' Fifties. Dogs and cats eating tinsel was not anything people ever talked about happening. Sounds like some sort of 21st century consumer worrywart issue.

Who's having the most fun

I was so glad when our son was old enough (1957)for me to buy the thing I'd always wanted for Christmas but, because I was a girl, never got. Unfortunately, he was still at the push-toy stage so it didn't work for him but I had a ball.

Tinsel Hazards

Here's a question for you Boomers -- I see that tinsel was big in your growing up years (understatement). Did people keep their pets outside then, or did they all just die horrible, tinsel-blockage induced deaths? (I know that it doesn't always cause serious problems for them -- but with the sheer amount of tinsel on these trees, it seems like the chances for intestinal problems would be good.)

tterrace, I really like the attractively arranged couch pillows behind your train. What were you hiding back there? Or are they simulated mountains?

This was the time of my life.

I might as well be in this picture. The timeline and all that is going on is perfect. Wonderful family shot. WOW! what great memories. Thank you and Merry Christmas to you and your family.


Wow! I can practically smell the ozone. This could have been me, except we didn't have sense enough to take pictures of anybody with our electric train, only pictures of it, like this one from December 1954. I think it's Lionel, I forget.

There's a tree somewhere

Under all that tinsel!

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