Space toys encompass everything from robots to rockets to ray guns. Primarily associated with the tin and plastic toys of the mid-20th century, space toys reimagined and replicated the hardware used by matinee movie idol Buster Crabbe, who played Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers in the 1930s, as well as William Shatner, who portrayed Captain Kirk on “Star Trek” in the 1960s, and Harrison Ford, who inhabited Han Solo in the “Star Wars” films of the 1970s and ’80s.

Beyond space toys tied to high-profile entertainment franchises, many collectors are quite happy to get their hands on objects that live only within the universe of toys. These include tin and plastic flying saucers and battery-operated robots, many produced in postwar Japan, with generic names like Atomic Rocket, Rocket Racer, Robotank, Capsule 5, and Mr. Atomic, which was “A Cragstan Toy” from the 1950s made by Yonezawa.

The craze for Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon toys in the 1930s was actually spurred by the comic strips and radio shows for these outer-space adventurers, which preceded the movie serials. According to toy ray-gun collector Justin Pinchot, the first space gun was offered as a premium in 1933 by Cocomalt, a brand of powdered chocolate milk, which sponsored the Buck Rogers radio show. This early gun was made of cardboard, but in 1934, Daisy Manufacturing created the first metal space pistol for Buck Rogers, the XZ-31. By 1937, Marx had released the Flash Gordon Radio Repeater, a lithographed-tin gun that made a clicking sound when the trigger was pulled.

After World War II, space toys proliferated as the public became increasingly interested in the promise of technology, whose terrible power had been displayed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and space exploration. Companies such as Buddy L, Ideal, Hubley, J. E. Stevens, and Kenner made space toys out of everything from lithographed tin and paper to diecast metal, molded plastic, and even wood. In addition to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon items, toys bore the name of “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet,” which was a popular TV show in the 1950s. Space toys based on TV shows such as “Lost in Space” and “Star Trek” followed in the 1960s, while the stand-alone line of Major Matt Mason toys and action figures from Mattel appeared in 1966.

The biggest American space-toys franchise remains “Star Wars,” which was released in movie theaters in the spring of 1977. Toy maker Kenner had won the rights to produce “Star Wars” toys, but its initial line of four action figures (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, and R2-D2) was not ready in time for the Christmas shopping season. To make the best of this potential marketing catastrophe, Kenner sold what was essentially an empty box, which it labeled as an "Early Bird Certificate Package." The missing 3 ¾-inch figures were mailed to customers a couple of months later.

“Star Wars” would go on to inspire all manner of toys, from Kenner playsets of the famous Cantina on Mos Eisley and the Ewok Village on Endor, to LEGO podracers, which were released in 1999 in conjunction with “The Phantom Menace.” Between 1977 and 1985, Kenner produced more than 100 “Star Wars” action figures, the rarest of which is Yak Face, which was not sold in the United States. In 2002, LEGO made its first minifigure with shorter legs to approximate the modest stature of Jedi master Yoda, while in 2008 LEGO produced its largest set, a 5,000-plus piece version of the “Millennium Falcon,” Han Solo’s legendary spaceship.

LEGO and other companies such as Monogram and View-Master also produced space toys that were based on fact rather than fiction. Naturally, these focus on the real space explorations of NASA, whose astronauts and vehicles are favorites of model-makers and LEGO fanatics alike. Examples range from Apollo modules from the 1970s to Space Shuttles of the 21st century...

Of course, space toys are not just an American phenomenon. In Great Britain, space toys based on the exploits of Dan Dare and Dr. Who were manufactured by Palitoy, Chad Valley, and others in the 1950s and ’60s. Some of these basic designs were good enough to be recycled as Italian space toys. But the leaders of postwar space toys were the Japanese, who made tin toys an art form with their flying saucers, rocket ships, and extraterrestrial robots.

Some of the most collected Japanese manufacturers include Masudaya, Nomura, Hashimo, Horikawa, Union, Asahi Toy, Bandai, and Tomy. Many of the brightly colored, lithographed tin space toys these companies made were wind-ups, while others were powered by batteries or friction. And some like the Yonezawa Atom-Car and Atom Jet blurred the line between model cars and space toys.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

One of the most comprehensive vintage toy raygun reference sites, with lots of detailed descriptions and great phot… [read review or visit site]

Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Attic of Astounding Artifacts

Danger... warning! This small but lethal site by 'Doc Atomic' showcases an excellent collection of out-of-this-worl… [read review or visit site]

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

% 1930's Daisy Buck Rogers Disintegrator Copper Toy Space Ray Gun 9 1/2" LongVintage Nomura Robby The Robot,vintage Nomura Mechanized Robot 1950s OriginalModel Car Junkyard Parts Lot 60s 70s Nasa School Bus Hot Rods More1960's Wham-o Playset Sonic Air Blaster Boxed And Working Space Ray Gun MarxVintage~1977~1979~star~wars~lot~12~21~boba~fett~han~solo~droids~r2d2~darth~vaderVintage~1977~1984~1985~kenner~star~wars~potf~last~17~barada~staff~lot~set~12" Gi Joe Mercury Astronaut And Mercury Friendship 7 Space CapsuleScarce Painted 1936 Buck Rogers Liquid Helium Water Pistol By Daisy Ray Gun X-zVtg 1950's Wilesco R200 Atomic Reactor Live Steam Engine & Machine Shop ToolsRare Destination Moon Mechanical Bank Aqua Finish-duro Mold Mfg. W/key & InfomatRare Vintage 1956 Flying Saucer Mechanical Bank, Duro Mold Mfg W/key & InfoVintage 1930s 25 Th Century Daisy Metal Buck Rogers Toy Space Gun.Vintage 1960s Modern Toys ~ Apollo Tin Battery Operated Space Ship ~ Nice! WorksAntique Buck Rogers Daisy PostalVintage~1977~1978~star~wars~han~solo~r2d2~r5d4~darth~vader~card~12~21~back~lot~1950's Waco Space Refuel Station Nasa Japan Battery Op Japanese Tin Toy Rare!1951 T.m. Masudaya Space Ship X-" Tin Lithosparking Friction 12" Super Rare Size1930s Rare Flash Gordon Space Outfit In Original Box Vintage Space ToyGi Joe Misc 2 Astronauts - 1999 Colonel Buzz Aldrin 1997 Shuttle Astronaut Major Matt Mason 6" Figure With Helmet 1966 WhiteRare! 1965 Revell "flash Gordon" And The Martian Unbuilt Model Kit In The Box!Lego 918 Vintage Space Classic One Man Spaceship CompleteMajor Matt Mason 6" Sgt. Storm Figure With Helmet 1966 Red60's Ichiko Japan Super Mouse X-5 Tin Lithographed Friction Action Car Toy Star Wars Empire Strikes Back Slave 1 Boba Fett Spaceship Kenner 1981 Esb 39690Lego Movie Lego Benny's Spaceship! 70816Ideal Zeroid Star Team Star Hawk Space Ship 1977 In Original Box1970s Gi-joe Vintage Space-ship Vehicle Hasbro Hong Kong Stingray Octopus ++1997 Lost In Space B9 Robby Robot Mint Unused Sealed In The BoxLot Of 7 Major Matt Mason Figure Stands Vintage?Apollo Csm Model 1/32 Scale Monogram Fully AssembledGi Joe Limited Edition Fao Schwartz Masterpiece Astronaut Set,hasbro, C1996Tin Toy Space CapsuleGo Hero Buck Rogers Ray GunMajor Matt Mason Launch/landing Pad Crater Rare Piece HtfRare Vintage Apollo Rocket Toy Processed Plastics Tim-mee W/ AstronautsVintage 1957-1958 Topps Target Moon Space Non-sports Cards 49 Different Nice2 10" Mego Action Figures Doll Flash Gordon Helmet Boots Ming Merciless 1976Revell Gemini Spacecraft 1/24 Scale Model Nasa Space Flight Usa1960's Marx Maxwell Smart Agent 86 Super Beam Signal Ray Toy Gun FlashlightMattel Major Matt Mason Star Seekers Works!Huge Lot Nasa: Dragon Wing, Corgi, Saturn, Apollo, Discovery, Atlantis Die Cast Rare Bicentennial 1776-1976 Vacumet Inc.guided Missile Bank W/key & InstructionsAtomic Vomit Wretch-ed Huge Resin Sculpt Dead Mint Mvh Kaiju Splurrt Sofubi NagSpace Patrol Japanese Tin Toy Battery OperatedLego 70816 Lego Movie Benny's Spaceship - Open BoxMint!~vintage~1977~1980~star~wars~fx7~medical~droid~shimmering~bod~w/bright~armsRare Vintage Gold Chrome 1950s Rocket Satellite Bank Duro Mold Mfg.w/key & InfoNice Vintage Amt Star Trek Model Kit & Box Manual U.s.s. Enterprise Space Ship Vintage Masudaya Metal Tin Spaceship Rocket Boy Astronaut Toy Japan RareMattel Major Matt Mason Sgt Storm Doug Davis Jeff Long Lot Vintage Rare1984~1985~star~wars~potf~17~luke~stormtrooper~warok~a~wing~r2d2~popup~saber~coinVintage Star Wars 1978 Kenner Death Star Space Station Boxed CompleteCommander Comet Rare Matt Mason Colorforms Alien Outerspace Men 1968 ColorformMajor Matt Mason 6" Doug Davis Figure With Helmet 1966 YellowMajor Matt Mason From MattelVintage Sh Japan Tin Mars GunHobby Master Ha1010 1/72 Lockheedf-104n Nasa, Joe Walker, Edwards Afb, Ca 1966Lost In Space Tv Classic Jupiter 2 Electronic Lights Sounds TrendmastersHuge Lot Of Vintage 1960's Mattel Major Matt Mason Callisto Access Action Figure