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.