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”)



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 Lincoln Futura Battery Operated Tin Toy Japan Alps Batman Batmobile 11 InchVintage German Fleischmann Bing Tin Wind Up Toy Boat W/ Flag Seems To WorkMarusan Tin Litho CadillacTremendous Mike Robot Japan Space I Rare Wind Up Clockwork Toy Vintage Tin Niedermeier Germany Pn-200 Artist Motorcycle Motorrad Vintage Tin Toy Car 1950 Vintage 20s 30s Marx Merrymakers Tin Wind Up Toy Rare WorksRare Cragstan 1960s Litho Tin Great Astronaut Robot Battery Japan ToyGescha Germany Army Airplane Flugzeug S-733 Vintage Prewar Tin Toy Car 1930s Gama Tin Litho CadillacOld Tin Linemar Superman Rollover Tank *vintage Wind-up Japan ToyTin Friction 50's Mercedes Benz Gullwing 300 Sl Car Opening Wings Bandai JapanRare Vintage Marusan Kosuge Made In Japan 1952 Black Ford Sedan Tin Friction CarVintage German Pre War Fleischmann Bing Tin Wind Up Submarine U-boat Toy Wwi1950´s Vintage Alps Television Spaceman Japan Robot Tin Space ToyTin Plate Plane By Line Mar Toys Japan1960s Tin Japan Rocket Interplanetary Space Fighter Robot Exc In Box!!!Old Gilbert Tin Battery Op 1964 007 Bond Aston Martin Car W/ Box. A+. Works. NrVintage 1950's Linemar Marx Capital Airlines Battery Operated Tin Toy AirplaneVery Rare Cko Kellerman German Sozius Nr 353 Motorcycle Wind Up Tin Toy 1930s Vintage Marx Toys Tin Litho Honeymoon Cottage Doll HousePre War O Gauge American Flyer Tin *3100 Trolley Locomotive & 2 Railcar Lot*Vintage Marx Tin Toy Grehound Bus Station + Tin Toy Taxi - Car LotRare Early Antique Tin Wind Up Toy Ship Clockwork Boat Fleischmann Vtg Bing IvesVintage 1950s Marx Super Circus Play Set Figures Tent Tin Litho Lot Louis ClownsRare Rosko Nomura Lite-o-wheel Tin Toy Lincoln Continental 1962 + Original BoxAntique Pair Of Vintage Marx Wind Up Fire Truck Toy Tin Pressed Steel Wind-upVintage 1950's Marx Tin Litho Sears Allstate Service Station 3482 W/orig Box NrFrench Tin Motorcycle. Wind Up Works. Original Antique.Rare 1950s Flying Spaceman/robot-tin/cell-bat/op-nmint-boxed-working-alps-japanVintage 1960's Friction Motor Tin Car Isetta Bandai Motor Works Great ConditioOld Tin Mobilgas Garage W/car *vintage Japan ToyVintage Rare Marx Pathe News Car Friction 30s 40s 50s Truck Tin Toy Scarce 1930's Schuco 4001 Examico Tin Wind-up Bmw 328 Original BoxAntique Wolverine Zilotone Musical Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Xylophone Vtg Music BoxVtg Tin Wind Up T.p.s. Skippy The Tricky Cyclist Clown Toy-original Box-japanOrig 1950's Japan Made Tin Litho Toy House Trailer Sss International W/box NrToy Stamp & 1960s Marx Tin Litho Service Station Excellent ConditionVintage Tin Bat. Op. Ford Fairlane 1956 By Yonezawa Made In Japan Rare !Vintage Bandai Cragstan Saab 93b Sedan Japanese Tin Toy Friction Car. Awesome!Vintage Tin Litho Wind Up Santa Claus Figural Toy Tn Company Japan 1950's W/boxSchuco Dancing Monkey Germany Pre Ww Ii Vintage Wind-up Tin Toy 1930s WorkingVintage 1950s Nomura Musical Drumming Robot-great Litho-works-tin-b/op-tn, JapanVintage Wyandotte Pressed Steel Woody Toytown Estate Tin Cadillac Sedan Car-niceGerman Fighting Cocks Tin Litho Wind-up Toy C.1920's - Excellent ConditionBandai Tin Friction Drive Renault DauphineHorikawa Japan Tin Battery Op Attacking Martian Robot Excellent W/ Box30's Vintage Very Rare; Here Is Orig Chein Popeye Tin Litho, Wind Up No/reDisney Mickey Mouse Lionel 1100 Key Wind Up Hand Car W Box Green Tin Train ToyOld Tin Linemar Flintstones Rollover Tank *vintage Wind-up Japan ToyVintage Technofix Tin Wind Up Toy Motorcycle G.e. 258 ...look Tin Friction 1958 Dkw Auto Union 1000 Car Damph-kraft-wagon Bandai JapanTin Friction 50's Paa Airways Airplane Plane Strato Clipper Nikko Gangu JapanRare, Iy I.y. Metal Toys Japan Tin Car 63 Chevrolet Impala Bump Go In Box Nomura1930's~hafner~tin Litho Wind-up 5 Piece Toy Train W/track~hafner's Railways~vgc~1930s J.chein Tin Litho Easter Rabbit Pulling A Wagon Large Toy Candy ContainerVery Rare Vintage 1950 S.s.s. Toy Cadillac & Tin Trailer/camper Japan No ReserveTumbling Monkey Marx Tin Wind Up Toy In Excellent Condition With Original BoxVintage 1962 Marx Dino Quarry Crane Toy, Fred Flintstone Tin Battery Works!!Marx #7 Midget Tin Wind Up Race CarMammy Dancing Doll Tin Windup Toy Lindstrom