Tin has been a favorite metal of toy makers since at least the middle of the 19th century. Tin is lightweight, easy to work with, and inexpensive, yet it’s sturdy enough to withstand the punishment meted out by children playing with wind-up animals, friction sports cars, and science-fiction-inspired toy ray guns.

German toy makers such as Hilpert had been known for their tin toys since the end of the 18th century. By the mid-1800s, companies such as Märklin and Bing of Nuremberg were also in the tin-toy game. Advances in photolithography techniques, including the ability to print directly onto the tinplate before it was folded and shaped into its final form, should have been a boon to these already prosperous companies, but by the end of the century, many German toy makers still decorated their products the old-fashioned way, thanks to the large numbers of skilled workers who were adept at hand enameling and spray painting with stencils.

In addition to Märklin and Bing, other pre-World War I German toy makers of note included Karl Bub and Georges Carette, as well as Ludwig Lutz, whose transport toys were often sold under the Märklin and Bing names. Between the wars, Schuco produced a menagerie of wind-up animals, which are among the most collected tin toys today, while Fleischmann launched armadas of tinplate floating ships, some of which were powered by steam engines produced by Doll & Cie, which Fleischmann acquired in the late 1930s.

The tin-toy industries of England and France largely evolved in the 1920s, although the U.K. firm of Lines Brothers was making toys in the 1850s (long before its Tri-ang brand of cars were released in the 1920s) and William Britain of toy soldier fame made clockwork tin toys in the 1880s. But perhaps the most influential British tin-toy maker was model-train impresario Frank Hornby, who made clockwork tin trains as well as tin toys, the latter sold under the name Meccano.

Across the English Channel, one of the deans of French toy makers was Fernand Martin, whose painted tin mechanical toy figures were often costumed in real cloth to give them dimension. Transport toys were a particular favorite of the French. Automaker Citroen produced accurate tin promo cars for its dealers, prompting JEP (also known as Jouets de Paris) to compete with the industrial giant. Charles Rossignol, founded in 1868, was also big on tin buses, race cars, and delivery trucks.

In the United States, one of the earliest makers was George W. Brown of Connecticut, who partnered in 1856 with Chauncery Goodrich so that he could use the clockmaker’s locally made mechanisms in his wind-up toys. Edward R. Ives also got its start in Connecticut, sourcing his clockworks from the New Haven Clock Company. Brooklyn-born Louis Marx arrived on the toy scene later, but became the biggest of them all—by 1950, the company that bore his name was the largest toy manufacturer in the world. Among Marx’s most successful products are the wind-up Disney characters, while his Merry Makers mouse band featured a quartet of tuxedoed rodents, none of them resembling Mickey.

While toy makers in the West had every right to be proud of their products, their work would be overshadowed somewhat in the 20th century by makers in Japan. Manufacturers had be...

Before World War II, Japanese companies such as Masudaya, Tomiyama, Saito, Kuramochi, and A.K. Toy were making tin streetcars, locomotives, and even the tracks they ran on. Tin toys in which balls were kicked or sent to the tops of towers so they could roll down again were all the rage. Water-landing aircraft were also popular in the 1920s and ’30s, as were trios of airplanes and biplanes that spun in circles from the tops of clockwork-powered merry-go-rounds.

But things got really interesting after the war, when Japanese toy makers produced armies of tin toy robots, fleets of tin spaceships, and stockpiles of futuristic tin weaponry, which produced everything from eerie ray-gun sounds to sparks. Toy cars were also a hallmark of the Japanese tin-toy industry, some of the most beautiful of which were built by Yonezawa, Marusan, Bandai, K.S. Toy, Ichiko, and Mitsuhashi.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Antique-Tintoys

Antique-Tintoys

Juergen Sinkels stunning collection of German tin-plate toys circa 1900 to 1930. Features high resolution, almost-l… [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    

Antique 1920s German Tin-litho Wind-up Toonerville Trolley Fontaine Fox ToyRare 1900's Lehmann "shenandoah Airship #766 Tin Litho Wind Up 7 1/2" No Reserve1954 Marx Linemar Japan Rare Chevrolet 2 Door Friction Tin Litho 11" No Reserve1900s Germany Tin Wind-up Gunthermann Musical Bear OrchestraMarx Disney Mickey Mouse Meteor Train Wind Up Tin W/key And Track1900s Germany Tin Wind Up Flying Zeppelin Airship GunthermannAntique Weeden Live Steam Engine Tin Toy Propeller Boat ~ 12" X 3.5" X 4.5"Vintage Tin Usaf Boeing B-50 Bomber Plane Made By Yonezawa1900s Germany Tin Merry Go-round Airplanes And Zeppelins Airships Carousel1950s Tps Japan Tin Roller Skating Clown Wind Up Toy In Box Excellent! Linemar"attacking Martian Robot" 1950's Horikawa Japan Tin Battery Operated ToyPopeye Wind Up Juggling Toy With Olive Tin Original Very Scarce LinemarOld Tin Marx Bomber Airplane *vintage Military Pressed Steel Toy PlaneVintage Japan Battery Operated Tomiyama Flying Circus Tin Toy With Circus Bear1903 Lehmann German Tin Naughty Boy Car Vis-a-vis Auto Excellent Working Toy!"attacking Martian Robot" With Original Box 1950's Horikawa Japan Tin ToyJapan Tin Cadillac Tn Nomura Nikko Friction Convertible 13 InchOld Tin German Handstand Clown *vintage Wind-up Germany Circus ToyBandai 1956 Ford Japan Tin Friction ConvertibleRare Vintage 1950s Corgo Tin Veloflech Ford Gyron Futuristic Space Concept CarVintage 1960s Walt Disney Productions Marx Tin Litho Donald Duck Drummer Toy1950's Haji Tin Litho Friction Ford Convertible Blue Car 8" Japan No Reserve1930's Rare!! Pre-war "k.t." Japan Airflow Tin Litho Wind Up Car 6" No Reserve1962 Yonezawa Japan Cragstan Mr Robot~excellent Tin Litho Working Battery Op2 Vintage Tin-litho Wind-up Toys Marx Rollover Plane & West Germany Rocket Swing1920's 13" Cast Iron Horse Drawn Tin-plate Grocery Wagon In Original ConditionTn Nomura Tin Friction Midget Dirt Track Sprint Race Car 7.5" Excellent CondAntique Technofix Germany Merry Clown On Bicycle Tin Wind-up Toy~no Reserve 1920s Lehmann German Tin Brennabor Truly Rare Auto W/driver & Electric Lights!Kaname Opel Kapitan Battery Operated Vtg Tin Japan Nomura,bandai,marusan,ichikoHorikawa Tin Fighting Space Man Nearly Mint And Working1900s Germany Tin Wind-up Gunthermann Cat Chasing MouseTin Ck Kuramochi Iwaya Linemar Concept Car Hand Control 1950s ExcellentPopeye Stopping A Tank Toy Original1950s Tin Made In Japan 10 Inch Scarce!Rare Vintage 1930's Harold Lloyd Marx Funny Face Wind Up Tin Litho Toy W/ Box1959s Louis Armstrong Tn Nomura Tin Toy Wind Up Trumpet Player In Box Work GreatVintage 40's Marx "royal Bus Line" Tin Wind Up Bus W/ Driver Prt.orig.box Works!Vintage Silver Pigeon Scooter - Tin Friction - Made In JapanWyandotte Pressed Steel Sedan Coupe Car Rubber Wheels Tin Grille 1930's 1940'sRare Vintage Tin Blue Indy Race Car #21 Electro Special Toy Yonezawa Japan1945 Unique Art L'il Abner Dogpatch Band Tin Wind-up 8 Piece Toy Parts Lot3 Vintage 1950s Tin-litho Union Station Railroad Train Toy, Marx & Automatic CoVintage Made-in-japan Wind-up Tin-litho Toys Knitting Cat & Bear Golfer +Hafner's Railways "0" Scale Pre-war Tin "overland Flyer" Train Rare (a13)Rare Vintage Friction Red Wings Ky-s Tin Toy Soldier/ Machine Gun On MotorcycleRare Linemar Japan Donald Duck Climbing Fireman Wind Up Tin Toy WorkingRare Japan Vintage Atomic Man Tin Wind-up Robot Space Toy, Fine Condition!Rare Jean Schoenner Tin Train Passenger Car Painted Germany Carette Bing MarklinYonezawa Tin Friction #5 Champion Midget Racer 7" Mint In Box & Display CaseRare Vintage Windup Tin Toy-joe The Acrobat Hobo Clown-tps Japan-works-1950sRare Chein 1920s Tin Litho Horse Drawn Delivery Truck Fine Groceries W Driver1950s Japan High Way Patrol Polce Motorcycle Tin Battery Op. Mt Modern Toys Tn Nomura United Airline Dc-7c Friction Tin Vtg Japan,yonezawa,alps,1950s Tn Japan Tin Sky Patrol Spaceship W Blinking Jet Engines & Gunner NomuraWolverine Tin Wind Up Coupe Car Marx 1930's 1940's Pontiac Wood Wheels 30's Marx Grand Central Tin Litho Lighted Train Station Clean ToyVintage Tin Battery Boac Linemar Marx Vc 10 G-arta Jet Airplane Toy Japan PlanVintage Tin Litho Wind-up Easter Bunny Toys Wyandotte Lehmann Chein & JapanLionel O Gauge 610 Pullman Car 612 Observation Tin Trains Pre War W/ Box VintageVintage Louis Marx Tricky Taxi Tin Windup Toy Car Usa 1930s Black White Wind Up