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The first toy trains were made of lead and had no moving parts. Some had wheels which turned, but these needed to be pulled or pushed. Some of the early 19th-century push toy rails were made from tinplate, such as the big, durable, stylized locomotive toys from the U.S., which were painted red and gold and decorated with hearts and flowers. model trains deadwood sd

Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be scraped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than previously.
Toy trains were revolutionized when Märklina German firm which specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equal toy for boys in which a continuous revenue stream could be ensured by selling add-on accessories for decades after the initial purchase. In addition to boxed sets comprising a train and track, Märklin offered additional track, rolling stock, and buildings offered separately, creating the predecessor to the modern model train layout featuring scenery and buildings in addition to a working train.

Electric trains adopted, with the first appearing in 1897, produced by the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As residential use of electricity became more common in the early 20th century, electric trains gained popularity and as time moved on, these electrical trains grew in sophistication, gaining light, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling noise, to smoke, to couple and uncouple cars and even load and unload freight. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; afterwards trains were frequently made mainly of plastic.
Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed by kids, while electric trains were marketed towards teens, especially teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading began to catch on.
Consumer interest in trains as toys waned in the late 1950s, but has experienced resurgence since the late 1990s due in large part to the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Today, S gauge and O gauge railroads continue to be considered toy trains even by their adherents and are often accessorized with semi-scale model buildings by Plasticville or even K-Line (who owns the rights to the Plasticville-like buildings produced by Marx in the 1950s into the 1970s). However, due to their high price, one is more likely to find an HO scale or N scale train set in a toy shop than an O scale collection.

Many modern electrical toy trains comprise sophisticated electronic equipment which exude digitized sound effects and allow the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote control trains on one loop of course. In recent years, many toy rail operators may operate a train using a TV camera at the front of the engine and hooked up to a screen, such as computer monitor. This will show a picture, like that of a real (smaller size) railroad.

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