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]



Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Arcade Cast Iron Ford Model A Wrecker Express Truck Toy Sticker 1929 To 32Kenton Or Arcade Cast Iron Double Decker City Bus Made In Usa1930s Arcade 8.5” Cast Iron Red/green Weaver Wrecker Tow Truck #210Vintage Cast Iron Chief Car KentonHubley " Electrical " Chrysler Airflow Sedan1930s Cast Iron Arcade Truck Nice Clean Original Condition19thc Antique Kenton Cast Iron Horse, Ladders, Fire Wagon, No ReserveOld Cast Iron Hubley? Race Car *1920's-30's Vintage Toy *8.5 InchesArcade Vintage Cast Iron Toy 5" Auto Car1903-cast Iron Toy Harris Steam Paddle Wheel Boat Adirondack-15" All Org-wilkins1800s Dent Huge Horse Drawn Cast Iron Fire Wagon Museum Quality OriginalEarly Antique A.c. Williams Original Cast Iron Motorcycle Cop 1930's Vintage 1930's Hubley Cast Iron Harley Davidson Motorcycle Swivel Head PoliceArcade Cast Iron Silver Arrow 1933 CarHubley Studebaker Roadster Small1930's Arcade Red Cast Iron Diesel TractorCast Iron " Air Ford " Hubley Vintagetoy Airplane. Excellent Condition.Old Cast Iron 1920's-30's Boat Tail Race Car *vintage Boattail ToyArcade Cast Iron Toy Car Black Metal Model A Coupe Freeport Ill Antique VintageArcade Plymouth Truck Cast IronOld Antique Cast Iron Hubley Kilgore Harley Motorcycle & Side Car Toy Police ManAntique Cast Iron Hubley Hillclimber Motorcycle 6 InchesArmy Motor Truck Cast Iron OldAntique Cast Iron & Tin Toy Barrel Wagon With HorsesAntique Cast Iron Rare Double Decker Bus Arcade Fageol Hubley Yellow Orig 8" NrVintage Cast Iron Dump Truck Marked 16 2101Rare! Vintage '50s Hubley 22 Race Car W/ Driver Restored Cast Iron Diecast RacerVintage Antique Toy Cast Iron Tow Truck Rare No. 3900 Nr ArcadeAntique Arcade 1920's Cast Iron Ford Toy Car-freeport Il About: 5" X 3" X 2"1930s Cast Iron 1 Ton Stake Truck Hubley 5 InchesHubley Cast Iron Diamond T Stake Truck Toy Nickeled Parts # 2238 1930sCast Iron Antique Toy Red Truck 4'' X 1. 25'' Model S8 Stamped On Bumper Hubley Cast Iron Stake Bed Truck 6" Long Original Tires Yellow And BlueArcade Cast Iron Ice Mac Truck Original With Nos Rubber Tires Red/black ColorHubley A.c. Williams Arcade Cast Iron Motorcycle "cop" With Side Car 4"Antique Hubley Cast Iron Policeman Motorcycle Driver!!!Vintage Kenton Cast Iron Overland Circus Wagon With Polar Bear And RidersOriginal Cast Iron Gas TruckEarly 1900s Cast Iron Fire Pumper Truck Hubley Very Rare !!Vintage Cast Iron Arcade Greyhound Bus 1933-34 Worlds Fair Chicago Souvenir ToyVintage 4" Toy Speed Racing Cast Iron Motorcycle1930s Arcade Cast Iron Fordson Tractor Nice ConditionAntique Cast Iron Horse Drawn Kenton Ice WagonHubley Cast Iron Fire Truck #10 1930's Antique Toy Great Condition 3-1/2" LongRalstoy Toys 3 Diecast Trucks All OriginalKentontoys Cast Iron Road Grader Toy Nickeled Moveable Blade 1930s1930s A C Williams Cast Iron Donkey Or Mule & WagonVintage Marklin Cast-iron Tractor Or TruckCast Iron 7 Window Car - 1930's Arcade, Hubley ?Cast Iron Toy Horse Drawn Fire Pumper W/ Engine 518 House Fire StationAntique Cast Iron Double Ladder Fire Truck"hubley" Cast Iron Race Car With Moving PistonsNeat Old Original Cast Iron With Rubber Wheels Wagon - Cart By Arcade C.1930'sCast Iron Mccormick Deering Threshing MachineCast Iron "arcade International Harvester" Dump Truck Antique Toy Cast Iron Tractor With DriverVintage Lot 4 Arcade ? Hubley ? Car Tractor Driver Part Figure Metal Cast IronThomas Toys Hubley Chrysler Airflow Larger 6" VersionA.c. Williams Arcade Cast Iron Steam Boat 7 1/2" Beautiful PaintVintage Cast Iron Fire Pumper Truck