A perennial favorite around the Christmas tree or spread out on the playroom floor, model trains have held the interest of kids big and small for the better part of a century. Modern wood or plastic versions with snap-together tracks and smiling TV character engines are still lots of fun to play with, but they don't hold the same fascination for us as the detailed replicas that came before them.
According to Collectors Weekly, model trains first became popular when department store owners added them to Christmas window displays around 1920. Early train toys of the 1870s and 1880s were messy and dangerous, using kerosene or alcohol to heat water in a boiler and create steam. But as real-life trains moved from steam to electricity, the British toy manufacturer Hornby introduced electric trains modeled after actual train lines.
Like dollhouses, model trains give us a chance to recreate our world in miniature, with layouts limited only by a family's imagination, budget and available floor space. Moss and pine cones stand in for grass and trees, while tiny buildings often replicate an actual townscape. And while old-school model trains may seem too complicated or time-consuming for today's busy lifestyles, model railroad displays at museums and outdoor gardens still draw huge crowds, especially around the holidays, keeping us every bit as mesmerized as those first model train window displays must have done.