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    

1920s Louis Marx Ring A Ling Circus Tin Wind Up-ringmaster Activates The Figures1950s Alps Japan Tin Coney Island Twirly Whirly Rocket Ride In Box & Works! Rare Tippco Germany Tin Wind-up Tc-1334 Airplane 1930s Tinplate Plane Distler !Vintage Louis Marx Merrymakers Band Tin Wind-up Toy With BoxMarx Merrymakers Band Tin Wind Up1930s Marx "charlie Mccarthy" Benzine Buggy Tin Litho Windup Toy (dakotapaul)Antique Lehmann Old German Litho Tin Wind-up Wild West Bucking Bronco Child ToyTin Space Toy Moon Rocket Masudaya Of Japan Battery Non Fall, Not Clockwork AshiVintage Japan Battery Operated Atom Motocross Motorcycle Tin Toy Masudaya 1922 Toonerville Trolley Tin Windup Toy Nifty Germany1930s Marx "joe Penner And His Duck" Tin Lithographed Windup Toy (dakotapaul)C 1910 Lehmann's Tin Litho Wind-up Autobus 590-germany Tin Toy1930s J Chein Tin Wind Up Popeye The Sailor Walking Toy Works Nice Litho! Rare 1950s Usagiya Japan Linemar Spaceman Robot Tin Toy Space Rocket ShipTerrific Rare Naito Shoten Interplanetary Explorer Robot Tin Wind-up Toy - Works1940's~marx Toys~tin Litho Wwii Wind Up Airplane~u.s. Army Bomber Fighter Plane~Vintage Space Explorer Robot Tin Toy Sh Horikawa Japan With Original Box SilverRare Hiro Japan Tin Plastic Wind-up Sparking Super Robot In Box Space Tinplate !Vintage Technofix Tin Toy Motorcycle Made In Us Zone Germany Wind UpTippco Esso Petrol/gasolene Pump Car Windup/winder/key Tin Toy Station Antique Tin Windup Toy Man On Motorcycle 1910 Fischer Or Gunthermann GermanyTin Motorcycle Toy. Made By Arnold. Military Motorcycle In 1939.germanyAwesome Rare 1959 Bandai Tin Japan Lincoln Continental Iii Large-size Toy Car!Vintage 1955 Japan Marusan Silver Eagle Tin Friction Toy Bus With BoxLtd Toy Stamp & 1950's Mt Japan Daihatsu Midget Tin Toy Truck Mib Friction WorksMarx 1940's Wwii Tin Lithographed Wind Up Fighter Plane Twin Engine GunnerLtd Toy Stamp & Marx Bud Bowman Dairy Truck & Trailer Tin Litho Nmib Rare!Vintage Tin Robot With Japan Marked On Inside Leg. 1920s Tin Windup Strauss Santee Claus ToyVintage Very Rare Cragstan Rocket Launching Pad Japan Tin Toy 1950sAntique Tin Toy - Japan Bandai 1957 Ford Fairlane Convertible CarAntique 1920's Ferdinand Strauss Co. "jenny The Balky Mule" Cart Tin Wind-up ToyVintage 1960’s Television Space Tin Robot 14 ½” Tall Battery Operated Alps JapanIves "o" Gauge 131 Tin Lithographed Baggage Car, Circa 1910, All Original-nice!Bandai Tin Friction 1958 Lincoln Mk Iii Convertible 11" Restored With Box1950’s Lithographed Mechanical Happy Hippo Tin Windup Tps Japan W Box Near MintLehmann Tin Windup Toy "masuyama" In Original Box Mib1930s Tin Windup Marx Joe Penner And His Duck In Original Box1930s Germany Tin Windup "monkeys On See Saw" Toy By DistlerDistler Porsche 356 Electromatic 7500 German Tin Battery OperatedIngap Fiat Ss1100 Rare Vintage Wind Up Tin Toy CarLionel Prewar # 184 Tin Litho Bungalow O Gauge - Nice! No Reserve (dakotapaul)Vintage Marx Western Town Tin Cabin Original Shingle Roof DesignBullmark Tin Windup Popy Mach Baron Red Mb Vintage Antique JapanHorikawa Tin Red Swivel-o-matic Robot Japan With BoxVintage Antique Metal Bandai? Japan Tin Friction 1960's Cadillac 17" Inches Rare B&r Tin Wind Up Kids Special Trike Bicycle Toy Lehmann Strauss German RareVintage Tin Litho Metal Wind-up Proud Peacock Alp Japan Old Toy Still WorksPrewar Lionel No. 126 Tin Litho Red Crackle Station No Reserve (dakotapaul)Marx 1930's Cowboy Rider On Horse With Lasso Tin Wind-up Toy, Lone Ranger, WorksVintage 1960's Tin Litho Western Overland Stage Coach Old Cragstan Old West ToyBandai Tin Toy Car 11.5" 1960 Red Cadillac Convertible Japan FrictionMid1950's Marx Fort Apache W/ Tin Cabin, Fencing,cowboys, Indians, Military,horsLouis Marx And Company "tricky Taxi". Tin Wind Up Toy W/box And Original Key.Marx - Vintage Tin Wind Up Whoopee Cowboy Car Xx 84dKarl Bub Nurnberg "kbn" "o" Gauge 0-35 Tin Lithographed Clockwork Loco & TenderTin Windup Toy Lehmann Anxious Bride Nanni & Mars Vintage Japan S&e Battery Operated Dentist Bear Tin ToyTetsujin 28 Tin Wind Up Billiken / Osaka Tin Toy Institute Rare!Vintage Alps Space Television Tv Robot Tin Japan 1st Issue Rare Clean Nr