It’s no coincidence that the popularity of toy automata grew out of advances in horology in the 1600s. Indeed, the word “clockwork” is often used to describe mechanical or wind-up toys, though only a small subset of American toys ran off actual clock mechanisms. Generally, wind-up toys were powered by keys and cranks that activated small springs, which turned tinplate gears when released.

Mechanical parts were often hidden in the toy’s widest section or base, and extended motion to appendages via wires or springs. For example, a toy carriage typically propelled its miniature horse, rather than the other way around. Some toys made use of weighted flywheels, whereby a pulled string or lever used the inertia of a weighted spring to create movement. Twisted elastic or rubber bands also provided energy to turn the gears of wind-up toys.

The earliest mechanical toys were typically made for affluent European aristocrats, like the detailed battle scene made for the Dauphin of France around 1660; that toy featured charging cavalry and realistic explosion sounds. These types of mechanical toys were widely popularized after Jacques de Vaucanson’s human automatons were publicly exhibited in Paris in 1738. Among Vaucanson’s more haunting adult figures was a kid-friendly mechanical duck, which could eat, drink, quack, and swim.

Beginning in the 19th century, increasingly affordable versions of these wind-up toys were produced by makers like Lucien Bontemps in Paris. Bontemps’ wind-up character dolls typically performed demure movements to the tinkling of music boxes hidden beneath their bases. However, these complex toys were still primarily designed as adult novelties rather than children’s playthings.

By the late 1800s, simpler wind-up models made from painted tin were created just for children, though often featuring subjects taken from adult life. These figural toys ran for a few minutes at most, but still performed highly specific tasks like climbing a ladder or writing a letter. To make products more cheaply, manufacturers used materials like cardboard, composition, and tin instead of expensive porcelain or wax.

Racing horses, carousels, bicycling figures, and even wobbling drunks suddenly came to life on playroom floors. Many late-Victorian toys reflected the social and political climate in which they were made, modeling scenes from current events like the Dreyfus Affair. Circus-themed toys were also common, from acrobatic clowns who appeared to walk on their hands to trapeze performers that spun in mid-air. The French firm Fernand Martin and the German company Lehmann became some of the most prolific designers of these miniature automata, cutting figures from sheet iron and assembling them using small tabs and slots.

American clockwork toys first appeared around 1860 and were often created using the exact same style movements used to turn the hands of clocks. U.S. manufacturers were primarily located in the country’s Northeastern clock-making region, and included George Brown, E.R. Ives, Blakeslee & Company, Martin & Runyon, Automatic Toy Works, and Louis Marx & Company. Within three decades, clockwork toys were discontinued as cheaper European wind-ups flooded the U.S. market...

Companies like Schlesinger, Strauss, and Marx developed wind-up designs in tin to compete with international imports. As toy trends evolved during the 1940s and '50s, wind-up designs reflected new childhood favorites, from Disney characters to cowboy figurines to robots from outer space. Simultaneously, the rise of plastics and other synthetic materials following World War II resulted in a major decline of wind-up toy production.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

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 Vintage Wind Up Zeppelin Airship Space Plane Toy Sg Gunthermann GermanyMarx Spic Coon Drummer Tin Wind UpRare Vintage Lehmann Autobus 590, Germany Circa 1907.Vintage 1930’s Deco Era Chrysler Airflow Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Toy CarMarx Spic And Span Tin Wind Up RareStrauss Thrifty Tom's Jigger BankRare 1920s Antique Ives Mechanical Clockworks Wind-up Automaton Walking Bear Toy1940 Marx Popeye The Pilot Tin Wind-up Toy1950s Vintage Tin Lithograph Wind-up Space Trooper Robot By Haji JapanOriginal Atomic Robot Man Antique Windup Tin Lithograph Mechanical Toy Nr $9.99Kingsbury Electric Lights Wind Up Tin Car 13" Long Auto Rare 1930’s Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Toy Divco Parcel Delivery Van TruckKingsbury Keene Wind Up Tin Car 12" Long Auto Old Tin 1920's-30's Marx Doughboy Tank *vintage Wind-up Military Toy Vintage Tin Litho Wind-up Falcon C-59 Speed Race Boat Toy Tm Modern Toys JapanSalto The Flipping Dog Windup 1930s Tin Litho Toy & Orig Box By Gunthermann Antique Dog Pull Tin Toy Wind Up German Lehmann Gunthermann ? Parts Repair Vintage 1950s Germany Schuco 5301 Ingenico Tin Wind-up Buick Toy Car1930 Marx Toy Amos & Andy Wind-up Fresh Air Taxi Beautiful & Works Great!Extra Rare Gescha Germany Tin Wind-up Airplane Squadron In Box Plane Tinplate !Antique German Wind-up Go-round 4 Kids In Canoes1930s Schuco/schreyer German Wind Up Boy Lifting Girl Excellent Working ToyVintage 40's Marx "rookie Cop" Tin Litho Wind Up Motorcycle Toy With Siren SoundNew York Central Lines Model 1031 Wind Up Train Locomotive, Rare??Vintage1920s Louis Marx Tin Coast Defense Wind Up With Moving Cannons! , ScarceRare Vintage Bing Ford Model A Germany Toy Tin Litho Wind Up Car Antique T TruckVintage Schuco Solisto Wind Up German ToyPlayland Whip Large Toy By J. Chein 1950’s Vintage Tin Windup ToyDelivery Tin Motorcycle Toy Japan Ko Alps Yonezawa Bandi Marusan Harley YonezowaAntique German Tin Wind Up Coach Van Large Toy 1900s Glass WindowsVintage Tin Clockwork Mettoy Police Rider Motorcycle. Made In England 1935-49.Rare W. Krauss Germany Tin Pat & Patachon Slate Dancers 1930s Tinplate Steam !40's Marx "military" Sparkling Soldier Tin Litho W/up Camouflage Motorcycle ToyFabulous Vintage 1940's J. Chein & Co. Windup Tin Litho Roller Coaster W/ Cars Vintage Original Schuco Studio #1050 Windup Tin Litho Toy Car NrVintage Chein Tin Wind Up Toy Santa Made U.s.a.Vintage 1950's Wind Up Schuco Clown #951 With #950 Box Works No ReserveMarchesini M.l.b. Family Car Tin Made In ItalyMarchesini M.l.b. Coupe' Car Tin Made In ItalyOld Tin Marx Jolly Joe Army Jeep *vintage Wind-up Military ToyLtd Toy Stamp & 1940s Disneyland Donald Duck Chein Ferris Wind Up Ferris WheelMarchesini M.l.b. Cabriolet Car Tin Made In ItalyVintage 40's Louis Marx Co. "police" Mechanical Tin Litho Motorcycle Toy No/reseVintage Kohler Tin Litho Mechanical Wind Up Singing Bird W/ Box Western GermanyVintage Pair Of Tin Wind Up Slot Race Cars (2)Original Schuco #2010 Magico 10" Long Metal Windup Toy CarVintage Original Schuco Combinato #4003 Windup Tin Litho Toy Car NrVintage 40's Louis Marx Co. "police" Mechanical Tin Litho Motorcycle Toy 4 1/4"1930s Marx B.o. Plenty Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Box Only!!!! From Dick Tracy VgMib 1950s 4pc Tin Litho Wind Up Small Size Toy Train Made In England By KayPre War Japan Tin And Celluloid Windup Boy On Tricycle - 1930'sVintage Early 1900s Kingsbury Wilkins Pressed Steel Windup Toy Bi-plane AirplaneVintage 1950's Wind Up Schuco Tippy 990 Scotty Dog With Box Works No ReserveVintage "working" Schuco Magico Auto 2008 Marked "u.s. Zone Germany" W/ KeyOriginal Linemar “pluto The Drum Major” Tin Wind-up Toy NrPre War Japan Wind Up Circus Clown On Horseback W/box - 1930'sHubley Tin & Cast Iron Toy Ferris Wheel With Clockwork, Early Cast Iron Example1956 Linemar Donald Duck Nephews Guns Tin Wind Up Disney Toy Rifles Marx JapanLehmann Bucking Bronco, Windup, 1906, Aka Buffalo Bill Wild WestAntique 1921 Ham And Sam The Minstrel Team Strauss Corp. Working Missing Parts