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    

No Reserve! Original Champions Racer #98 Tin Friction Toy Car By YonezawaUnique Bing Germany Tin Live Steam 39" Train & Coach Set Gauge Ii Rare Marklin ! Antique 1920s Marx Tin W/up Indian Motorcycle W/ Side Car Nr #7Antique Marke Lehmann Tin Plate Lithograph Also Wind-up Automobile Car Toy NrVintage 1940's Arnold Mac 700 Tin Wind-up Toy Motorcycle W/ KeyVintage Huge 1950s / 60s Japan Bandai Tin Friction Toy Cargo Jet AirplaneAntique Tin Toy Robot Horikawa Sh Japan C1960s Attacking MartianRare Alps Cadillac Eldorado Series 62 Convertable Tin Friction Car With BoxVintage Yonezawa Space Man Robot 1950's 1960's Blue Tin ToyAntique Vintage Rossignol Tin Toy Wind Up Clockwork Toy Passy Bus AutobusChein Popeye Barrel Walking Tin Wind Up With BoxVintage 1950s Nomura Tn Japan Hunter Tin Friction Toy Motorcycle Vg Cond Mib Cragstan Mr.atomic Battery Operated Space Robot Tin Toy Osaka Japan WorkingVintage**rare**japan Lithographed Battery Operated Large 18" Tin Toy Boat. WorksVintage Bandai Bmw Isetta Tin Toy Car #21960s~gilbert 007 James Bond's Aston-martin Db5 B/o Tin Aoshin Japan WorkingW Vtg Unique Art Mfg Co Flying Circus Tin Litho Wind Up Toy For Parts RepairAntique Louis Marx & Co Champion Skater Tin Wind Up Toy Original Box Made In UsaVintage Antique Wind Up Clockwork Celluloid/plastic/tin Plate Dog Boot Toy JapanVintage Bandai Messerschmitt Tin Toy Car #2Marx Or Wyandotte Pressed Steel, Tin Toy Ice Truck With Trailer. Original Paint.Vintage Pre-war Gbn German Toy Steam Engine Tin Lithographed W/ Accessories VgcSuper Rare Lone Star England Plastic Batgun 1966 Ray Gun Batman Robot Tin ! Antique German Nuremberg 1905-1915 Hess Tin Toy Car Edwardian Vehicle FrictionVintage Tin Litho Battery Space Craft, Rocket, Star Ship, 16x11" Japan Gc/nrVintage Cyclops Australia Tin Toy Tip Truck - Cyclops & Lines Bros. Australia Vintage 1960's Mr. Hustler Astronaut Robot Tin Battery Operated Toy Japan Hot Wheels Mattel Vintage Original Redline 150+ Collector's Button Tin BadgeRare Vintage Marx Howdy Doody Tin Litho Wind Up ToyVintage Antique Tin Wind Up Amos & Andy By MarxHaji Mansei Tin Friction 1955 Ford Convertible 7.5" Excellent ConditionVintage Bandai Messerschmitt Tin Toy Car Vintage Tin Battery Op High Jinks At The Circus X 2, Alps, Japan, 1 For PartsOld Tin Marx Midget Special #2 *vintage Wind-up Toy Race CarMechanized Robot Robby W Original Box 1950s Tn Nomura Japan Tin Battery OperatedOld Tin Gnk German Cow W/box *vintage Wind-up Germany ToyLner Vintage Live Steam Railway Tin Plate Toy Bowman Tank Locomotive Model 3001950s Boxed 6” Clown On Roller Skates Tokyo Plaything Shokai Japan Tin Wind-upOld Tin German Chicken W/cart *vintage Wind-up Germany Toy1950,s Asakusa Thunder Robot Japan Tin Toy Space ,working!Original 1960s Bandai Tin Volkwagen Beetle Driver W Box! Japan Battery BugLil Abner Tin Toy Litho Vintage Art Dog Patch 4 Wind Up Toy 1945 Parts Only Vintage 1966 Asc Tin Friction Batmobile With Batman In Great ConditionVtg Jensen Live Steam Engine Model Type 75 W/ Instructions; Metal Tin Toy KitOld Tin Ko Sky Patrol Flying Saucer W/box *vintage Battery Japan Space ToyVintage Marx Tin Plate 396 Locomotive Tender And 7 CarsRare! Vintage 1950's Japan Tin U.s.a.f. V-1 Toy Rocket Space ShipVintage Bandai Tin Friction Jal Japan Airlines Dc-7 Tin Toy Propeller Airplane Vtg Marklin Germany German 10t Model Railroad Train Set Ho Scale Tin Electric X2~*~estate Find~*~ Old Tin Wind-up Toy Motorcycle Age??? Maker???Ives Tin Pre-war Lithographed Train Station / Waiting Room With Electric LightsMarx 35220 Happi Happy Time Boxed 333 Smoking Set Kiiller TinOld Tin Linemar Electra Flagship Plane *vintage Japan Battery Toy Airplane1900s J Chein Wind-up Tin Litho Boy On Tricycle W Bell Working!Hauser Old Pre War 1930s British Compesite Army Figures And Tin CannonsMarvelous Car Japanese Tin Battery Operated Ford Thunderbird W/ BoxAntique Tippco Tipp Co Tipp & Co Tin Wind Up Motorcycle T-696 Circa 1935 GermanyBandai Tin Friction 1963 Studebaker Avanti 8" Very Goodt ConditionBuddy L Wrecker Tow Truck 1930's 1940's Pressed Steel Tin Grille Keats Auction1950s Haji Mansei Boxed Minty Tin Friction Convertible W Boat & Trailer Japan