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]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1950s Original Tin Japan Spaceman Moon Car Space Division No. 3 Works!Strato Space Gun, Futuristic Production Co., Detroit, 1950sUnbuilt Aurora Pan-am Space Clipper 2001 Space Ship #148 1968 W/instructions1950s Plasticraft Hard Plastic 9 Inch Spaceship Rocket Car1957 Revell Manned Space Ship Authentic Model Kit W/box Xsl-01 --for PartsVintage Prewar Wyandotte Pressed Steel Toy Buck Rogers Space Rocket ShipMth 30-2188-1 Nasa Sw-1500 Switcher Diesel Engine W/proto 2Vintage Black Gi Joe Action Atomic Man Body Parts Lot 12inch 1964-74 HasbroVintage 50s Hawk #514 Xab-1 Beta I Atomic Powered Bomber Model Kit!Lost In Space Jupiter 2 Spaceship Rare Trendmasters LooseRare Vintage 1967 Mattel Major Matt Mason Captain Lazer Mib Sealed DeadstockLego Movie Lot Of 2 70814 & 70816 Emmet's Construct-o-mech & Benny's Spaceship Vintage Star Wars Death Star Space Station Playsets Rope Part - 100% OriginalVintage Tin Cragstan/masudaya Toys # 1950's "atomic Rocket" With Lever Action !Rare Official Tom Corbett Space Cadet Sparkling Space Gun By Marx With Box1960s Kanto Tin Friction Space Capsule With Floating Astronaut RareMth Railking Nasa Round Roofed BoxcarLego Lot 20 Pounds Star Wars Harry Potter Spaceship Minifigures And Much MoreSpace Pioneer Toy Masudaya Modern Toys Japan 1963 Tin Toy Space ToyHuge Vintage Mattel Major Matt Mason Play Set And Figure LotTin Toy Rocket Ship Sparkling RangerKusan Us Army Atomic Cannon Car # 42010 From Atomic Train Set1969 Mattel Star Seeker Major Matt Mason In Original Box With Figure & PlanetsHorikawa Rotate - O - Matic Super Astronaut 1960s WorkingVintage Aurora The Invaders Flying Saucer Model Kit Built Up W/ Box As FoundLego 6869 & 70816 Marvel Super Heroes Quinjet Aerial Battle & Benny's Spaceship Vintage Action Figure Mixed Lot Flash Gordon ThunderbirdsAntique Toy Space Gun1967 American Space Program Collector's Set Apollo + Gemini + Astronaut Nos Nib1960s Swivel O Matic Vintage Battery Operated AstronautVintage Lego Space 6861 Spaceship Complete With InstructionsStar Wars Death Star Space Station Vintage Figure Playset 1978Marx Kennedy Space Center Astronaut Vintage Estes Astron K-9 Spaceman Model Rocket KitVintage 1946 At-em-bom Game By R D Osgoodby - Atomic Bomb Game - Ultra Rare Wwii1960s Battery Op Tin Toy~x-07 Space Serveillant Flying Saucer Ship~japan~restore1960's Mystery Space Ship, Alien Spacemenfigures, Marx, Original Box, Incomplete Mpc Ring-hand Astroforce Space Men Soldiers 13 Helmets Guns AccessoriesSpace 1999 Eagle Transporter Mattel Toy Spaceship1977 Star Wars Death Star Space Station Near Complete W. BoxVintage Gi Joe Talking Astronaut, 1970's, Working Talker, Blonde Hair1966 Mattel Major Matt Mason White Suit Action Figure1950s Marx 5 Inch Metallic Green Hard Plastic Futuristic Space Car #4Lego Star Wars 75051 Jedi Scout Fighter Spaceship Plane Only No Minifigures/boxLot Of 3 Hot Wheels Workhorses Series Hiway Haulers: Pepsi, Ocean Pacific, NasaRay Harryhausen Film Cold Cast Resin Figure Xplus Martian Space Ship Harpy LotClassic & Rare 1969 Snoopy Astronaut Peanuts Toy Figurine W/ Original BoxHorikawa Toy Industrial Co. Tokyo Japan-litho Tin Super Apollo Space CapsuleLego Super Heroes 76020 & 76021 Milano Spaceship Rescue & Guardians Galaxy LotVintage 1975 Gi Joe Action Atomic Man Adventure Team Fangs Of The Cobra Hasbro Vintage 1975 Gi Joe Action Atomic Man Adventure Team Special Assignment Hasbro Vintage Star Wars Clone Wars Millenium Falcon Spaceship Tonka 1995 As IsNice Sutcliffe "sea Wolf" Tinplate Clockwork Atomic Submarine Nrmint In BoxHasbro Gi Joe Action Astronaut Masterpiece Edition Fao Schwarz 1966 Mattel Major Matt Mason RestoredVintage 1958 Strombecker Walt Disney's Man In Space Ship Rocket Model For Parts1968 Mattel Major Matt Mason Callisto Space Alien Action Figure Nasa Space Rocket PartsMovie Lost In Space Star Trek Shield Metal Pendant Key Ring Chain Nib Gold #01Vintage 1975 Gi Joe Action Atomic Man Adventure Team Race For Recovery Hasbro