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.

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