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]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Cragstan Alps Japanese Tin Litho 1950's Firebird Iii Concept Space Toy Car1930s Buck Rogers Toy Xz-31 Rocket Pitsol Ray Gun By DaisyStrato Ray Gun Die Cast Metal PistolVintage Star Wars Death Star Space Station Playset + Box Kenner 1978 ToyVintage Hubley " Atomic Disintegrator " Space Ray Cap Gun Approx 8 In. LongIrwin Flashing Rocket Ship Space Pistol Flashlight Toy VintageCorgi Aviation 1/72 Sikorsky Sh-3d Sea King Us Navy 1969 Apollo Recovery L126 Pl1930s Buck Rogers Toy Xz-31 Rocket Pitsol Ray Gun By Daisy 7"Extremely Rare 1950s Strolling Space Station Made In Japan By Yone Mint In Box!!Very Rare 1950's "pez Space Gun" With Original Instructions MintVintage Murray Atomic Missle Super Sonic Pedal Car1950s Solar X Space Rocket W/ Box Tin Space Toy Battery Operated JapanVintage Solar X 8 Toy Tin Rocket Nasa Space Japan Litho Battery Operated ~nice~12 Inch Gi Joe Man Walks On Moon 1969 Colonel Buzz Aldrin Astronaut Appolo 11 1 6 Scale 12 Inch Gi Joe Mercury Astronaut John Glenn + Life Magazine Replica Large Lot Of Mixed Lego / Space Station/vehicle /mini Figures / Police 19.8 LbsVintage Gi Joe Official Space Capsule W/ Astronaut Complete In Box 1966 HasbroMarx Tom Corbett Gun Space Cadet Super Beam Signal Ray Gun VintageForgeworld 40k Battlefleet Gothic Eldar Craftworld Spire Space StationVintage 1940's Kix Cereal Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb RingMajor Matt Mason Blue Strap W/ Helmet Cat Trac Mattel 1966 Great Wires & PaintVintage (1964) Hawk Model Co.chicago "beta"-i Atomic Powered Bomber Xab-1 ModelColorforms Outer Space Men Astro-nautilus Alien Vintage 1960's Toy Action Figure70816 Benny's Spaceship(the Lego Movie)Captain Ray-o-vac Rocket Ship W/box Flashlight Vintage Space ToyVintage 1968 Eldon Billy Blast Off & Accessories Space ToyVintage Airfix Cosmic Clipper Model Kit Original Package Rare !!! Space Ship1950s Marx Linemar Moon Creature Chompy #2 Beetle Bug Tin Wind Up Space ToySealed Moebius #902 1/24 Lost In Space The Chariot Model Kit!Lego Airplane Middle Cabin Base 60022 Cockpit SpaceshipVintage Buck Rogers Tootsie Toy Space ShipVintage 1950's Space Control Space Gun Tin Toy Nomura Raygun Vtg 1950s Ideal Toy Co Large 17" Plastic Gyro Satellite Launching Space Car # Star Wars 1978 Vintage Death Star Space Station With Monster & FoamNisb 21104 Nasa Mars Curiosity Rover Cuusoo (box Is Not Mint, See Photos) 2 Vtg 50s Nabisco Space Man Spoonmen Crunchy & Spoon SizeMattel Commander Chuck Carter Sea Devils Action Figure 1969 Matt Mason SeriesMajor Matt Mason Space Station With Box & Two Astronauts! ~ No Broken Wires!1957 Rocket Ship Coin Bank Astro Berzac Space Toy Metal Made In Usa59 X Airfix / Unknown Space Men / Astronauts Scale 1:72 Ho/ooRevell,,atomic Space Exp Solaris1980 Mattel Vultan Figure From Scarce Series 3 Of The Flash Gordon LineVintage "flying Saucer" U-control Model Airplane With Cox 049 Engine.Vintage Hasbro 1964 Gi Joe Astronaut Fuzzy Hair Beard Talking Action Figure Colorforms Outer Space Men Jupiter Colossus Alien Vintage 1960s Action FigureGi Joe Vintage Adventure Team At Atomic Man Command Paradrop W/ Parachute CrateVintage 1960's G.i. Joe Astronaut And Space CapsuleFuturama Planet Express Spaceship ToySuperman Krypto Ray GunVintage 1976 Dinky Uss Enterprise Star Trek Die Cast - Space Ship - Rocket 1/48 Apollo Lunar Module Ultimate Model Kit (2) Model Kits Plus Much MoreVintage Lone Ranger Bomb Atomic Bomb Ring Cereal Premium 1960's Manned Orbiting Laboratory (mol) Nasa Gemini Capsule Model United StatesGi Joe Vintage Hasbro Atomic Man Mike Powers Fangs Of The Cobra Uniform 12" AtVintage Amt Star Trek " Uss Enterprise " Space Ship, Plastic Model Kit.Vintage Gi Joe Adventure Team Coils Of Doom Vehicle, Intruder, Atomic Man & MoreColorforms Outer Space Men Alpha #7 Alien Vintage 1960's Toy Action FigureVintage Marx Rat Patrol Jeep And Figure/rare Johnny Apollo HeadGi Joe Adventure Planet Xenome Astronaut 12” And Rare Brown Alien Loose Rare1973 Mego Planet Of The Apes 8” Astronaut W Helmet, Dr. Zaius & Zira Figures