If you are talking to a model railway enthusiast it would be better not to mention 'toy trains'. It was not always thus, but these days there is a difference. A toy train is exactly what it says – a toy that has the appearance of a train. A model train, on the other hand, is a copy of a real train built to scale.
The earliest toy trains date from the 19th century and were often made of cast iron. These evolved into units running on track and powered by a steam or clockwork engine. The biggest revolution came when German firm Märklin, which at the time specialised in doll's house accessories, looked into the possibility of a similar product for boys, and they came up with the idea of boxed sets containing a train and track, and then offered add-on accessories which would produce a constant stream of revenue through the years. It worked so well that it became the forerunner of the scheme operated by modern-day model railway firms.
During the Victorian period, there were several different types of toy trains, ranging from the extremely expensive, with working ‘steam engines’, to ‘penny toys’ that were made of tin or lead.
As time went on manufacturers began to realize that toy trains could be sold not only to children, but a more sophisticated version, the model railways, would also appeal to adults. Many model makers had a great interest in the new ‘real’ railways and were already beginning to build much more complex models. Some model railway publications were started, and the hobby quickly spread throughout the UK and the United States.
In fact, the first electric trains were produced by the American firm Carlisle and Finch in 1897. It was a timely introduction, for, as residential use of electricity became more common in the early 20th century, electric trains gained popularity. Toy trains from the first half of the 20th century were often made of lithographed tin, while later trains were mostly plastic.
As their popularity increased, toy trains developed in quality and attention to detail, and, since the 1930s, they have become much more sophisticated. Manufacturers also continued to expand their offerings of accessories.
Until the 1950s there was little distinction between toy trains and model trains, the only difference being that pull toys and wind-up trains were marketed towards children, while electric trains were aimed at teenagers, but then the emphasis switched to the greater realism which could be engendered by model rail and track.
At the same time sales of toy trains declined until the late 1990s, when there was a resurgence, sparked by the popularity of the television antics of Thomas the Tank Engine, which, as it happened, was also beneficial to the model railway industry,
Incidentally, it is not commonly known that many of the first models of trains were used as promotional and sales advertisements for railways, for there were people who had not yet had the opportunity to see a real train.