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]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique Lehmann Epl I Dirigible Zeppelin No 651 - W/box - Tin Wind-up - Works1930's Distler Germany Tin Windup Toy Dressed Drumming MonkeyVintage Etco Yonezawa Black 1951 Buick Le Sabre Tin Friction Sports Car W/ BoxUltra Rare 50's Yonezawa Occupied Japan Tin Litho Wind Up Trolley Bus Set MibT.n Nomura "patrol Auto-tricycle" Battery Op. Vtg Tin Japan,masudaya,ichiko,alpsMint 1960's Battery Operated Chef Cook Tin Litho Toy Japan Mib Piggy Burger Antique Lehmann Autobus 590 Drgm German Tin Windup Toy Ca. 1900sGama Opel Kapitan Battery Op. Vtg Tin W.germany,schuco,tippco,arnold,kaname,jnf1910's Gunthermann Germany Tin Windup Fire Chief Toy Car With Bell And DriversMint Tin-litho Yonezawa American Airlines Douglas Dc-7c Airliner With Gnd EquipMarx Kansas City Southern Kcs 54 55 Locomotive Car & Dummy 3 Pieces Tin Litho Vintage 1950s Japan Isetta B-588 Tin Litho Friction Car Ex./near Mint Boxed 1930's Fleischmann Germany Tin Windup Clockwork 2 Funnel Ocean Liner Toy Boat1910's Carette Germany Litho Tin Flywheel Friction Open Touring Car Toy & Driver1930's Chein Tin Windup Toy Ski Boy In Original Box, Boy On Skis With PolesVintage Black Americana Tin Tin Wind Up Toy1948 Wyandotte Humphrey Mobile Tin Litho Wind-up Complete Nice PaintHorikawa Fighting Tin Robot Ca 1960'sRare Ranger Robot Daiya Japan Space Battery Op Clear Plastic Tin Toy1930 J Chein Co. Wind Up Tin Litho Hercules Mechanical Ferris Wheel1950's Unique Arts Mfg. Artie The Clown Crazy Car Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy 1960 Vintage Original Marx Tin #4727 Medieval Castle Play Set, Box Near CompleteAntique Modern Toy Battery Op "atom" Tin Motorcycle WorksVintage Original Bandai Tin Camper Trailer With Tin Japan Car, Rare1930's Marx Flash Gordon Rocket Fighter Tin Wind Up Space Ship; King FeaturesOld Tin Wyandotte Limo *vintage Pressed Steel Toy CarMint 1950's Battery Operated Teddy The Artist Bear Tin Litho Toy Japan *working*Vintage 1945 Unique Art Lil Abner Dog Path Band Tin Litho Wind Up Toy FiguresAllen Haddock "coca Cola Truck" Battery Op. Vtg Tin Japan,nomura,masudaya,alpsVintage 1930's J. Chein Tin Toy Halloween Tambourine Jack-o-lantern PumpkinVintage San Japan Ssn25 Toy Tin Submarine Working Wind Up Motor S.s.n. No. 25Vintage Ernst Plank Made In Germany Windup Tin Ship 1900?Vintage 1950s Yonezawa 11" Directional Robot Battery Operated Tin Toy - WorksVintage Original Bandai Airstream Tin Camper Very Rare Amazing ,really NiceYonezawa Sears Indianapolis 500 Friction Tin Racer - Japanese 1950s - No Reserve1940's U.s. Zone Germany Tin Windup Tank Transport Tractor, Trailer, Tank In BoxHuki "tibo Express" Wind-up Vtg Tin,west Germany,tippco,schuco,niedermeier,gamaYonezawa Tin Friction 1962 Cadillac Police Car 14" Excellent Condition With BoxVintage Tin Cadillac--alps--japan--convertible--frictionVintage Japan Tin Litho 1950's Buick Friction Car,12" Tin Buick Convertible,niceLot 5 Vintage 60s 70s Ray Guns Space Blasters Metal Plastic Outlaw Japan TinIves Train 8pc Lot Vintage Prewar Tin Freight & Passenger Cars Vestibule Express1950s Mechanical Musical Tin Toy Space Ride Works Great W Box Rocket AstronautVintage Toy Gun Space Jet Ko Japan Original Tin Pistol Japanese Old AstronautVintage 1920s Huntley & Palmers Biscuit Tin Delivery TruckYu-gi-oh 2002 Blue-eyes White Dragon Collectors Tin Sealed Schuco Varianto 3010c Set Wind-up Vtg Tin W.germany,tippco,gescha,technofix,jnfVintage Linemar Battery Operated Bubbling Bull Tin Litho Rodeo Toy ObRare Old 1950's Battery Operated Traveler Bear Tin Litho Toy K Co. JapanOld Tin Wyandotte Car For Garage Set *vintage Pressed Steel ToyVintage Universe Tin Litho Space Ship Car Mystery Action Battery Operated Boxd1965 Gilbert James Bond 007 Aston Martin Original Tin Battery Operated Toy CarSchuco Varianto 3010d Set Wind-up Vtg Tin W.germany,tippco,gescha,technofix,jnfAntique Primitive Tin Child's Parade DrumAntique Hess Germany Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Battleship Boat No Marklin Arnold Vtg. Tin Litho Ohio Art Child's Watering Can #185 Elaine Ends Hileman 1950s Marx Rin Tin Tin Play Set Plastic Character Figure Of RustyBandai Tin Friction 1956 Ford Flower Delivery 12" Very Good Condition1939 Early Marx Watch Me Roll-over Pluto Tin Wind Up W. Scarce Box~excellentWorking Vintage Space Tank Tin Litho With Box