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

Around 1875, technological advancements in materials and manufacturing allowed tin to be stamped, cut, rolled, and lithographed faster than previously.
Toy trains were revolutionized when Märklin, a German company which specialized in doll house accessories, sought to make an equal toy for boys where a continuous revenue stream could be ensured by selling add-on accessories for years after the initial 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 adopted, 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 went on, these electric trains grew in sophistication, gaining lighting, the ability to change direction, to emit a whistling noise, to smoke, to couple and uncouple cars as well as load and unload cargo. Toy trains by the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin; later trains were frequently 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 towards children, while electrical trains were marketed towards teens, especially teenaged boys. It was during the 1950s that the modern emphasis on realism in model railroading started to grab 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 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 created by Marx from the 1950s into the 1970s). However, due to their high price, one is more likely to locate an HO scale or N scale train set in a toy shop than an O scale set.

Many modern electrical toy trains comprise sophisticated electronic equipment which exude digitized sound effects and permit the operator to securely and easily run multiple remote controller trains on a single 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 display, such as computer monitor. This will show an image, like that of a real (smaller size) railroad)

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