In the late 19th century, lightweight tinplate toys from Europe, particularly Germany, dominated the U.S. market. American manufacturers responded with heavy cast iron. Large deposits of iron ore around the Great Lakes ensured a plentiful, local supply—indeed, factories and foundries in the Northeastern United States had long been manufacturing cast iron household items, farm tools, and military equipment. Cast iron toys quickly caught on. They were more durable and affordable than tin, and as the automobile became an essential part of American society in the early 20th century, more and more children wanted toy versions of these fascinating new machines.

The iron-casting process began with an original model carved from wood, which was then used to create an impression in a hardened compound of sand and glue. After the sand molds were filled with molten iron and had cooled, they were broken open to reveal the finished cast pieces. The typical cast iron toy was composed of numerous pieces, which were then assembled and painted, often by hand. Because iron tended to rust when exposed to the elements, these toys were commonly nickel-plated to promote longevity. Finished cast iron model cars usually had a few simple moving parts, such as rolling wheels or hinged doors, but later models incorporated realistic features like rubber tires or working lights into their designs.

One of the earliest cast iron toy manufacturers was the Wilkins Toy Company, which was established in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1890. Initially it produced cast iron promotional toys advertising sewing machines and clothes wringers made by the Triumph Wringer Company. Four years later, the company was purchased by 25-year-old Harry Kingsbury, owner of a local bicycle shop. Kingsbury's inventive personality pushed the company in creative new directions—he released the first toy horseless carriage in 1900. Kingsbury's impact on the company was long-standing; his ingenious 1902 design for a clock-spring motor was used until the company stopped making toys in 1942.

The Hubley Manufacturing Company was founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1894, and originally concentrated on model trains. However, Hubley quickly dominated the cast iron toy market by taking advantage of the new five-and-dime stores proliferating across the United States. Hubley struck a number of clever promotional deals to link toys to celebrities. For example, the Lindy Gliders were a series of planes replicating Charles Lindbergh’s famous flying machines. The company also partnered with many popular brands to produce everything from miniature Bell Telephone and Borden Ice Cream trucks to Harley Davidson and Indian toy motorcycles.

During the Great Depression, Hubley offered cast iron model cars in multiple sizes, with prices to match. The smallest vehicles generally cost no more than a quarter, while a 13-inch model truck might run as high as $2.25, a hefty sum for a child’s toy in the 1930s.

By 1940, Hubley had become the largest manufacturer of cast iron cars in the world, but with the start of World War II, toy fabrication ceased. Although Hubley continued making toys after the war, they transitioned to diecast techniques and never resumed cast iron production. The most collectible Hubley vehicles today are highly decorative novelty cars like the Bandwagon, which included a team of four white horses, eight musicians, and a driver.

A worthy competitor of Hubley was Arcade Manufacturing, which was founded in 1855 but didn’t begin casting toys until 1908. Arcade released the first Yellow Taxi Cab model car in...

“Perfect pocket size reproductions of the ‘real ones’ – sturdily built” was the familiar Arcade tagline. Accordingly, for the 1933 Chicago Exposition, Arcade was contracted to make official models of the Greyhound buses that transported visitors around the fair. These were an instant success and are highly sought by vintage cast iron car collectors today.

The Kenton Lock Manufacturing Company, founded in 1890, ventured into the cast iron toy market under the management of Lewis Bixler in 1909. Kenton’s extensive selection of construction vehicles and farm equipment were unrivaled; around 5,000 different models were made during the company’s lifetime. Kenton helped establish The Toy Manufacturers of the U.S.A., an industry trade group dedicated to promoting domestic products and preventing imported goods from dominating the market.

The Dent Hardware Company of Fullerton, Pennsylvania, also got its start producing household goods and machinery parts until it became more famous for its toys. One of Dent’s most popular releases was the Fresh Air Taxi, a bright orange open-top cab, complete with Amos 'n Andy cartoon characters, as well as their dog, riding shotgun.

During the Great Depression, sales of the National Sewing Machine Company’s namesake appliance plummeted, so the firm diversified with product lines that were more affordable and easier to manufacture. Among these were a line of cast iron toys under the brand name Vindex.

Vindex toys exhibited great craftsmanship, typically using a thinner layer of casting material to allow for more realistic details. The company's John Deere and Case brand farm vehicles and tractors, produced in partnership with "Farm Mechanics" magazine, are particularly desirable today. Children would receive these toy vehicles as incentives for selling a certain number of magazine subscriptions; higher level sales were rewarded with rarer toys.

An increase in union wages finished off National’s Vindex toy line in 1938, but it was really World War II that killed the cast iron toy industry. The war effort monopolized factory output across the United States, so toy manufacturing was effectively halted until peacetime resumed. The gap in production allowed newer, cheaper technologies such as pressed steel, diecast zinc, and plastic to proliferate. By the war's end, cast iron’s golden era was over.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

DFW Elite Toy Museum

DFW Elite Toy Museum

Ron Sturgeon's excellent gallery of fancy model cars and other vehicles. Nice high resolution shots with classy mus… [read review or visit site]

The Show Room

The Show Room

This gallery at Dave's Show Rod Rally features model show rods from 1960 to 2001. Favorites include the 1958 Thunde… [read review or visit site]

VW Toys and Models

VW Toys and Models

A comprehensive site completely dedicated to miniature Volkswagen vehicles. Browse hundreds of toys by country, man… [read review or visit site]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Rare Buddy "l" Red Baby Delivery Toy Truck International Harvester 24" LargeHot Wheels Red Lines Rl Us Blister Pack Very Rare Magenta Olds 442 Near Mint1920's Keystone Packard U.s. Mail Delivery Toy Truck Pressed Steel 27" Large Tonka 1957 No.44 3 In 1 State Hi-way Dept Service Truck W/2 Plows-bracket-box *super Lot Of "39" Vintage Matchbox Moko Lesney All W/boxes*In The Box Mighty Tonka Winnebago Indian Motor Home No. 3885 & 2 Figures & DogHot Wheels Mattel Vintage Original Redline Uk Twin Pack Snake & Maserati Mistral30's Wyandotte Streamlined Lasalle Pressed Steel Toy Car And Trailer No Reserve Lesney Matchbox Lot 32 Cars All In Box MibRare 1930's Cor-cor 24" Large Blue Touring Bus Pressed Steel Toy No Reserve1937 Tootsietoy's, Buck Rogers 25th Century Rocket Ships In Original Box1930's Keystone No. 293 "ride Em" Fighter Plane Pressed Steel Toy 27" LargeHot Wheels Loose Real Riders, Very Rare Mexican Greased Gremlin, Gyw, From 1987Kingsbury 1935 Chrysler Airflow W/trailer Mechanical Pressed Steel Car U.s. MadeVintage Original Smith Miller Mobil Truck Gas Oil Pressed Steel Socony Pegasus1953 George Wagner, Studebaker Commander, "nbc T.v. Camera Car" In Orig. BoxTonka 1957 No.28 Blue Pickup Truck-red Stake Trailer And Cow With Box Original1941 Wyandotte, No.1006 Army Engineer Corps Truck In Original BoxVintage 1920s Buddy L Hydraulic Pressed Steel Toy Dump Truck Roadster Open CabCirca 1920's Dayton/schieble Sedan Coupe Pressed Steel Toy Car 17.5" Large Tonka Antique Toy Fire Truck - 1957 Surburban Pumper #46 Excellent ConditionVintage Pressed Steel Wind Up Clock Work Structo Race Car21" Wyandotte Toy Coast To Coast Pressed Steel Bus Truck Cargo Van Mi Michigan1968 Redline Hot Wheels Red Blue Custom Camaro In Unopened Blister PackVintage Buddy L 1924 Moving Van Solid Van Body - Pressed Steel - Barn FindVintage 1920's Pressed Steel Sonny Co. ? Or Buddy L ? Toy TruckRare Structo Roadster Convertible Mechanical Toy Car Pressed Steel 15" Large1971 Redline Hot Wheels Snake Ii Car In Unopened Blister Pack1956 Tonka Custom Built Shell Gasoline Tanker Truck " Nice" NrVintage Tonka Wrecker Truck Jeep W/plow And Working Tow Hook. Aa Blue & White Buddy L Ford Camper Truck W/ Boat, Motors, & Trailer Set Super Rare 60's Mint1968 Hot Wheels Redline Camaro Blk Top-blue White Interior Bp Moc Mint BlisterHot Wheels Rare Loose Near Mint Yellow Bye Focal From1971Vintage Hot Wheels Chopcycles SourkrautBuddy "l" Wrecker TruckHot Wheels Redline Era Burbank Toys Mattel Mexico Hot Shots Winning Streak Rare!30's Marx Fire Dept. #1 Siren Fire Chief Wind Up Pressed Steel Toy Car 15" Large1968 Redline Hot Wheels Red Custom Mustang Car In Unopened Blister PackRare Structo "police Patrol" Pressed Steel Toy Truck Tin Wheels 16.5" LargeToy Stamp & 1950s Smith Miller Tandem Log TruckDinky Toys Supertoys Rare Gift Set 990 Pullmore Car Transporter With Four CarsTonka Pressed Steel Desalle No 42 1956 Big Mike Dual Hydraulic Dump Truck NewBuddy L Flivver ScreensideVintage 1930's Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Toy Car 1935 Chrysler AirflowVintage 1969 Hot Wheels Redline Orange Classic 36 Ford Coupe Bp Moc BlisterRare 1957 Tonka Toys No.28 Pickup Truck Stake Trailer & Animal With Original BoxRegular Whls R-08d Ver F Ford Mustang Fastback, Red/orange Body, Clr Win L422Rare 1926 Keystone Packard Dump Truck ~ 100% OriginalHot Wheels Enzo Ferrari 2007 Super Treasure Hunt Short CardAutoart - Mercedes 600 Swb - 1/18 - Limited1957 Tonka "big Mike" Truck. Very Nice. Restored.Vintage Smith Miller Ironson Mic California Tow Truck 1950s 1970 Tonka Jeepster Pick -up W/ Box. Near Mib. Unplayed W/ Very Rare No ReserveVintage 1950's Buddy L Trucks Set Of 4 In Original Box Coca-cola W/casesRegular Whls R-33c Var 02 Lamborghini Miura P400, Dk Bronze, Red Int S7861933-34 Buddy L Pressed Steel Water Tower Fire Truck With Electric Lights1963 Tonka #422 Back Hoe Truck In Box ,look Book Unplayed W/ N. Mib No Reserve!Matchbox Case 1960s Car And Truck Collection LotAutoart -bmw M5 Shadow Line - 1987 - 1/181950s Tonka Toys Aaa Wrecker Tow Truck All Original 12"