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    

Antique German Carette Wind Up Tin Toy Car - All 4 Orig Passengers & HeadlightsAntique German Gunthermann ~ Aunt Jemima ~ Tin Wind Up Toy ~ Sold As Found ~ Nr Vintage Pressed Steel Kingsbury Wind Up Roadster Coupe Toy Car1963 Marx Jetson Hopping Astro Tin Litho Wind Up Toy In BoxTippco Tipp & Co Silver Racer No.5 Tin Windup Wind Up Toy Motorcycle Tco 59Fleischmann Tin Toy Boat Tanker Windup, Clockwork Schiffe, Bateau Marklin-likeVintage 1930 Meccano Constructor Car No2 With Original BoxNice 1957 Ford Fairlane Haji Japan Tin Friction Toy + Wind-up Boat & TrailerVintage **rare** German Wind Up Tin Toy Saloon Car. Bing. Marklin. LehmannVintage Pressed Steel Kingsbury Campbell Bluebird Racer Windup Toy Race CarEarly 1900's Marx Merrymakers Tin Toy Wind Up Band-attic Find-works Great!1930’s Marx Wind Up Tin Litho Toy Car Blondie’s Jalopy Dagwood 17" Key Wind Antique Vintage Wind Up Tin Toy Boat Bing Carette Ives Fleschmann,rosenbauerVintage Kingsbury Golden Arrow Land Speed Record Windup Steel Toy Race CarVintage Sunbeam Silver Bullet Windup Tin Toy Racer Race Car Rsa Flecha De Plata1939 Marx Pinocchio Wind-up Walt Disney Vintage Toy-8.5" Tin Litho Figure30-40’s Boxed Marx “hee Haw” Wind-up Donkey Cart - Driver & DogAntique Wood Windup Toy Stake Bed City Delivery Truck By Cass Or Mason & ParkerAntique Vintage Wind Up Tin Toy Boat Bing Carette Ives Fleschmann2 German Penny Toys - Tin - Litho - Meier - Distler - Fischer - 1920's - *rare*Vintage J Chein Ski-ride Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Roller Coaster Metal W/ Orig. BoxOld Tin German Felix The Cat *vintage Wind-up Germany Toy *dated 1922 1924Vintage Tin Toy Motorcycle, Technofix G. E. 258 Continental Record, Usa Germany Boxed Pre-war Japanese Boy On Tricycle1939 Tin Litho Pinocchio Wind Up Toy W/moving Eyes-original Box-marxVintage Tps Tin "climbing Linesman" - Bo Not Windup - Japan 1950's Vintage Marx 1930's Butter & Egg Man Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Salesman CountryVintage Unique Arts Mfg Lil Abner Dogpatch Band Mechanical Wind Up Tin Litho ToyVintage J Chein Disneyland Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Roller Coaster Metal Carnival.Antique Lehmann Gustav Miller Toy Rare Antique Lehmann Drgm Pre-war German Tin-litho Wind-up Seal Toy NrVintage Schuco Go Kart 1035 Wind Up Micro Racer W/boxVintage Metal Key Wind Windup John Cobb Railton Toy Land Speed Record CarVintage Marx Subway Express 42nd St. Ny New York Toy Windup Train Tin LithoVery Rare Super Kun Astro Boy Super Hero 1950s Space Robot Tin Toy Made In JapanVntg Wind Up Schuco Sonny 2005 Mouse Driving Green Car Balloon Nob As SeenVintage Marx Toytown Dairy Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Milk Wagon & Horse W/ Rare Box!1930s Schuco Germany Gravity Toy Acrobat Bell Hop Monkey Mohair-clothVintage Marx Sparking Midget Train Load Tank Wind Up Tin Toy 1920's WorksVintage Lehmann Wind Up Toy. New Century Cycle Marx Tin Oldtimer Clockwork Car Strong Windup Motor Deluxe VersionVintage Tps Tin "climbing Linesman" - Bo Not Windup - Japan 1950's Vintage 1950's Original Strenco Robot St1 Tin Wind Up Toy W/ Box GermanyC1910 Antique German Tin-litho Wind-up Penny Toy, Billiards Pool Player NrAntique / Vintage Tin Wind Up Toy-ham And Sam- Ferdinand Strauss-1920-oldVintage Marx Dagwood The Driver Wind Up Tin Toy Carzy Car Litho Works!Rare 1920's Strauss Rollo Chair Atlantic City Wind Up Tin Toy Germany AmericanaStructo Wind Up Vintage ToyVintage Wind-up Alps Japan-toy Proud Walking Peacock W-org Box-tin Litho-rare !!Vintage Lehmann Rigi Ski-lift Wind-up Toy With Box - 069 S83Lg 1930's Girard Tin Wind Up Toy Plane U.s. Marines Rare Like Marx HubleyVintage Marx Mr Mercury Tin Robot Battery Operated Space Toy 1950s Remote Works!1968 Vintage Japan Noguchi Wind Up Tin Mechanical Mighty Robot~early VersionAntique German Tin Litho Windup CarouselVintage Wind-up Toy Tps Skating Sad Hobo Clown On Skates Tin Litho JapanMarx Tin Wind Up Wwi Military Doughboy Tank With Soldier WorksVintage Saalheimer Strauss Pre War Motorcycle Armored Car Tin Wind Up Toy SideAntique Gebruder Bing Gbn Tin Litho Hand-crank Wood Cutters Lumberjacks Wind ToyTriang Toys Tin Jeep Car Wind Up Antique1930s Dippy Dumper Celluloid & Tin Windup Toy Superior Condition Great Movement