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

Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing enabled tin to be scraped, cut, wrapped, and lithographed faster than ever before.
Toy trains were altered when Märklina German firm that specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equal toy for boys where a constant revenue stream could be guaranteed by purchasing add-on accessories for decades after the first purchase. Along with 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 buildings and scenery in addition to an operating train.

Electric trains followed, with the first appearing in 1897, made from the U.S. firm Carlisle & Finch. As home use of electricity became more common in the early 20th century, electrical trains gained popularity and as time moved on, these electrical trains grew in sophistication, gaining lighting, the ability to change management, to emit a whistling sound, to smoke, to remotely couple and uncouple cars as well as load and unload freight. Toy trains by the first half of the 20th century were frequently made of lithographed tin; afterwards trains were often made mostly of plastic.
Before the 1950s, there was little distinction between toy trains and model railroads–model railroads were toys by definition. Pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed by kids, while electric trains were marketed towards teenagers, especially teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s that the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading began to grab on.
Consumer interest in trains as toys waned in the late 1950s, but has undergone resurgence since the late 1990s due in large part to the popularity of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Now, S gauge and O gauge railroads continue to be considered toy trains by their own adherents and are often accessorized with semi-scale model buildings by Plasticville or K-Line (who owns the rights to the Plasticville-like buildings created by Marx in the 1950s to the 1970s). However, due to their high cost, one is more inclined to locate an HO scale or N scale train set at a toy store than a O scale collection.

Many modern electric toy trains contain sophisticated electronic equipment which emit digitized sound effects and allow the operator to safely and easily run multiple remote controller trains on one loop of track. In the last few years, many toy rail operators may operate a train with a TV camera in the front of the motor and hooked up to a screen, such as pc monitor. This will show a picture, like that of a genuine (smaller size) railroad.

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