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    

German Guntermann Rear Entrance Tonneau Tin Mechanical Wind Up Toy Auto CarAntique German Tin Litho Key Wind 1905-1915 Toy Car Vehicle Red Touring AutoVintage Marx Merrymakers Band Lithograph Tin Wind-up Toy - Louis Marx & Co. UsaAntique German Nuremberg 1905-1915 Hess Tin Toy Car Edwardian Vehicle FrictionAntique Vintage Bing (gbn Wind Up Tin Lithographed Car/ Coupe 1st. Paint N.r Vintage 1950s J. Chein Japanese Tin-litho Elephant Mechanical Bank ToyRare Vintage Japan Taiyo Tin Toy Space Robot With Original Box *work*Tin Buffalo Toys Silver Bullet Race Car Wind Up ToyEarly 1900s Vintage Tin Toy Lehmann's Lehmanns Clockwork Tinplate Autobus No.590Vintage Antique Tin Wind Up Amos And Andy Taxi1907 Lehmann Autobus 590 German Tin Double Decker Wind Up Toy In Good ShapeScarce Vintage 1960's Taiyo Japan Tin Robot Space ToyVintage Marx Toys Popeye Dippy Dumper Wind-up Tin Toy Truck Works/missing PartsVintage German Distler Wind Up Mickey Mouse Baloon Vendor Tin ToyVintage 1935 Marx Tin Litho Popeye Wind Up Antique ToyMarx 1950's Roy Rogers Mineral City Tin Litho ToyVintage Japanese Yonezawa "diamond Racer" Tin Racing Car ToyVintage 1930's Push Along Carousel Horse Circus Tin Horse Well Aged Rustic ChicOld Tin Marx Dick Tracy Car *vintage Wind-up Toy1960's Tin Gm Fishbowl Bus Trademark Japan In Nice Condition1910 Louis Marx Dapper Dan Tap Dancing Early Jigger Tin Wind Up Toy Green JacketVintage 1950's Tn Nomura Smokey The Bear Jeep Fire Service Japan Tin - CompleteVintage Wind-up Tin MotorcycleVintage Gilbert Toys 007 James Bond Aston Martin Tin Car W/ejection Seat Guy Vintage 1920s Chein Doughboy Soldier Wind-up Tin Toy Military Nice1920s Distler German Tin Litho Wind Up Carnival Balloon Vendor W/ Mickey MouseVintage Lionel Tin Plate 2613 Pullman Car Original Not Restored Amazing CondVintage Antique Large Tin Toy 1959 60 Plymouth Squad Car Police Made In Japan Vintage 1960's Horikawa Japan Tin Super Astronaut Tv Radar Toy Robot Vintage Louis Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Joy Rider Crazy Car Clean And Works GreatVintage 1940s Unqiue Art Joe And The K-9 Pups Soldier Tin Wind Up Toy WorkingVintage 1950's Technofix Tin Friction Motorcycle / Racing Bike . Made In Us Zone50s Vintage Tin Wind Up Schuco Motorcycle 1012 Mirakomot Works Us Zone GermanyTwa Japan Battery Operated1960s Boeing 707 Super Jet Airplane Tin Toy Working Vintage 1950s Tin-litho Germany Drummer Drum Major Clicker Toy Noisemaker NrAntique Mechanical Cowboy & Horse Tin Teeter Balancing Toy Nodder With Stand YqzNomura - Tn Japanese Tin Litho Battery Op 1950s Rock N' Roll Hot Rod W/ Box ~ 7"1950's Battery Operated Piggy Cook In Original Box With Litho Tin. American Flyer Pre War O-gauge Streamline Tin Set Track TransformerVtg Marx Toy Disney Davy Crockett At The Alamo Play Set W/ Box Tin Litho Vtg Wolverine Toy Kitchen Canister Set 3 Pcs Strawberry Tin W/lids Flour Sugar CBen's Vintage 1963 Marx Scooby Doo Wind Up Tin Litho Hanna Barbera Rare?Vintage Tom Tom Indians In Canoe Tin JapanLinemar Musician Tin Wind-up Toy 50's Vintage Retro Tin JapanMarx B-58 Hustler Airplane Vintage Tin ToyVintage Marx Electric Lighted Filling Station Tin Litho Playset In Original BoxSparkling Space Ranger X-36 Vintage Tin Toy With BoxVintage Lionel Tin Plate 2614 Observation Car Original Not Restored Amazing CondOld Tin Marx Airplane *vintage Pressed Steel Toy PlaneMarx Roy Rogers Ranch Kid W/ Rin Tin Tin Kneeling Boy With HatchetOld Tin Marx American Tractor & Implements *vintage Wind-up Farm ToyVintage Lionel Tin Plate 2615 Baggage Car Original Not Restored Amazing CondAntique Schuco Curvo 1000 Post Wwii War Motorcycle U.s. Zone Germany Tin Wind UpMarx Roy Rogers Ranch Kid W/ Rin Tin Tin Kneeling Girl With Hand OutVintage 50's 11" Super Buick Trade Mark Tm Modern Toys Japan Friction Tin Marble Tin With MarblesThe Lego Movie Promo Press TinEarly Marx Wind-up Tin Litho U.s. Army Tank 30's V Rare Nice 100% OriginalVintage Toy Car Japan Stamped Tin Nice Chaffeur Driven ConvertableVintage Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Roll-over Airplane Toy - Working Condition