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    

Rare Blue Cragstan Space Radical Robot Tin Battery Operated Toy Yoshiya Japan 1953 Cadillac 4-door Sedan 12” Tin Car By Gama NrRare Vintage Tin B/o 1956 Space Robby Forbidden Planet Robot Ko Yoshiya Japan Rare Space Mobile Robot Car Tin Litho Clockwork Toy Original Box Marx Japan GebrÜder Fleischmann 20" Tin Clockwork Ocean Liner U. S. Zone Germany Scarce Original Tin Lithograph Wind-up Robot Space Commando Toy Nomura JapanOriginal Clockwork Bing Cage Masted Battleship Tin Boat 26" Wwi DreadnaughtVery Rare Antique Early 1930's German 'busy Lizzie' Tin Plate Clockwork Toy Rare Vintage Windup Racing Motorcycle Cycle Bike Friction Tin Toy Scarce 1950’s B/o Tin American Circus Clown Television Space Truck Exelo JapanVintage Rare Meguro Motorcycle Cycle Harley Davidson V-twin Bike Tin Toy JapanRare Vintage Tin Wind-up Sparking Space Robot Space Elephant Toy Yoshiya JapanBandai Japan Vw Volkswagen Beetle Bug Openable Door & Box Vintage Tin Car 1961 Vintage Marx Hometown Tin Toy Rooms & Police Station W Lots Of Assort Furniture1960’s Toyopet Crown Deluxe By Yonezawa 15.5” (39.37 Cm) Japanese Tin Car NrTin Friction 1958 Messerschmitt Tg 500 Four Wheel Car Bandai JapanScarce 8” Delicious Ice Cream Truck Car Tin Litho Friction Toy Ahi Brand R JapanEarly 1900s Gunthermann Germany Litho Tin Windup Toy Fire Chief Car W/ 2 FiremenVintage Japanese Tin Battery Operated Gear Robot By Horikawa - Original Box1950's Technofix G.e. 255 Race Motorcycle Tin Toy Made In GermanyVintage 1920's J. Chein Nonpareil Speedwagon Tin Litho Toy Truck Race Car Nice!Orkin Cabin Cruiser 32"-clockwork Tin Boat-all Original Pressed Steel.Vintage Marx American Railroad Express Agency Tin Litho Toy Truck 1920's Wind-upVintage 1920's J. Chein Nonpareil Motor Transportation Tin Litho Toy Truck Nice!Antique C.1920s Marx Old Mother Goose Tin Wind Up Toy, Original & Complete Rare Set Of 3 Submarine Ship Tin Clockwork Toy Flotilla Marke Hess Hjl Germany Large Vintage B/o Tin Lithograph Convertible Ferrari Stunt Car Bandai Japan O/bVintage Lil Abner Dogpatch 4 Tin Wind Up Toy Band Pioneer Unique Art Works!Lithograph Tin Ford Trimotor Airplane Toys Nomura Japan TnOriginal Clockwork Bing Tin Torpedo Boat 15" GunboatTin Space Toy Tank Yonezawa Mighty Explorer N-58 Japan Batt/op No Nomura/robotnrOriginal Clockwork Carette Paddle Wheeler Tin Boat 20"Vintage Mt Japan Neptune Tug Boat Tin Litho Battery Operated Toy With Box No ResMarx Train Set #15220 Santa Fe 21 Twin Unit Freight W/ob-tin Litho C.1950 Exc.1930's Louis Marx Wind-up Tin Racer Indy Car1957 Space Satellite Tin Litho W/u Sputnik Rocket W.boxC 1958 West German Tin Wilesco Atomic Reactor Steam Driven R200 No ReserveTin Friction & Battery Op Picnic Volkswagen Transporter Bus Van Yonezawa JapanVintage Antique Tin Wind Up, " Amos" By MarxDiamond 12 Space Atom Pistols Wholesale Box, Japan Vintage Tin Toy Gun 1950s NosElectromobile G Men Tin Battery Operated Car Japan1940 Marx Popeye The Pilot Tin Wind-up Toy Vintage Great Working Condition1965 Horikawa Wind-up Tin Litho Gear Robot 8 3/4" Block Head Space Toy, JapanScarce Vintage Windup Indian Motorcycle Police Bike Friction Tin Toy LinemarVintage Key Wind Model T Tin Toy Car Made In Germany60s Unique Tin Battery/op Red Batmobile Batman Car Mystery Action Full WorkingRare Original Alps Television Spaceman Robot Tin Battery Op. W/box Japan Works Tin Toy Motorcycles, Fire Trucks. Hoch & Beckmann, Carousel, Us Z. Germany.Rare Superb Pre War Large Size Celluloid & Tin Boxers Fighting Toy Windup JapanRare Vintage Battery Operated "pistol Pete" Tin Toy, Marusan (san) Cragstan ToysVintage Original '55 Louis Marx Rin~tin~tin Fort Apache Plastic Playset With BoxAntique Tin Toy Horse In Moving Wheel Pulling A Tin Cart With Tin Man Marusan 1957 1958 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham Tin Friction Toy Car Mint!Wagon Fantasy Land, Japan (tps) Vintage Mechanical Wind-up Tin Toy 1950s ExcVintage Marx #7 Tin Litho Toy Dump Truck With Driver 1920's Wind-up Estate Find!Tin Marx Uncle Wiggily Whoopee Car Wind Up , Works, Very Good ConditionNmib Tin Friction Super Sonic Race Car #36 W Driver Original Box Masudaya Japan 1955 Marx Rin Tin Tin Fort Apache Figures, Parts, Us Calvary Stable, Rip MastersPrewar German Fandor O Gauge Lithographed Tin Passenger Train StationChild's Antique Mouse In A Squirrel Cage Mechanical Tin Toy Wind-up Paris France