Models of ancient wooden boats have been found in tombs across the Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt, though these were likely used as ceremonial offerings rather than as toys. Some of the earliest model boats in America were re-creations of Noah’s ark, with small biblical characters and animals carved from wood, similar to nativity crèches.
Realistic replicas of wooden sail boats, sometimes referred to as “pond yachts,” were popularized during the sailing-schooner trend beginning in the 1860s. Though ostensibly for the children of affluent families, these boats were up to six feet long and were often piloted by fathers. During the same era, the world’s navies were transitioning from sail to steam, a change visible in model boats, too. Self-propelled toy boats provided fascinating entertainment for kids everywhere, some of which used tiny steam engines to run continuously for up to an hour. Everything from delicate pleasure boats with ornate floral designs and gilded bows to ominous hard-working warships floated on park ponds.
In the late 19th century, more affordable toy boats were produced from lithographed, sheet-metal cutouts. These dime-store products moved on wheels rather than water. Sometimes called “carpet rollers,” they included Meier’s “Meteor Boat” with a candy box mounted on top and wheels inset into the deck. Other motorized tinplate boats imitated boats carrying tiny crews or elegant courting couples, whose arms actually paddled little oars.
Miniature versions of the most famous ships like the Titanic or USS Constellation became popular as model-building kits because of their ornate details and complicated workings. Beginning at the close of the 19th century, companies such as Bassett-Lowke, Revell, and Hornby created complex kits for adult collectors, who'd spend countless happy hours assembling these highly realistic models.
Major changes in naval-boat technology were introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, resulting in many new toy varieties, including wind-up battleships, torpedo boats, and submarines produced by manufacturers like Märklin, Bing, Carette, Arnold, and Fleischman. Using rather simple mechanics, some of these underwater vehicles could dive and resurface multiple times after a single winding. Though almost all of these military ships included mounted weaponry, some could be loaded with a gunpowder mixture to simulate battle. A particularly clever model was designed after the Spanish-American war of 1898—it depicted a Spanish battleship that would break apart and sink after being struck by a rubber torpedo.
Sutcliffe created the first toy boat with a hull made from a single piece of metal in 1932. Soon the company had expanded its ship series to include submarine models like the famous Nautilus and Sea Wolf. The Nautilus was inspired by the submersible ship featured in the Disney film “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea,” and came with the distinctive teal coloring and ribbed gold decorations favored by Captain Nemo.
Many of the highest quality model ships were designed by German toymakers like K. Arnold & Co. Arnold’s popular lithographed tin toys ranged from its wind-up coast guard motorboats to its single-man rowboat, though the company stopped making tin toys in the 1960s to focus on model railroads. Another German firm, Bing, created historic ocean liners and warships of tinplate, which were painstakingly painted by hand. In contrast, Hornby released a lovely modern series of wind-up speedboats like the Alcyon and Venture models, which featured plastic windshields and miniature drivers whose heads rotated.