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    

Vintage Marx Merry Makers Wind-up Tin Toy,litho Mouse Band,excellent ConditonVintage Linemar Jiminy Cricket Tin Wind Up Toy Marx Japan Litho Walt Disney Box1930s Marx "joe Penner And His Duck" Tin Lithographed Wind-up Toy (dakotapaul) Early 1920s Schuco Wind-up Flock Face Charlie Chaplin Toy German (dakotapaul) Antique German Tin Toy, Windup Violin, Cello, Very Old!Antique Tin Litho Wind Up Limo/taxi/touring Car With Driver German?Vintage Arnold Mac 700 Motorcycle, Germany Us-zone, Circa 1949.Lot Vintage Lehmann Cars & Garages 771 772 765 Sedan 760 Race Car Tin Toy SetWonderful 1920's Unique Art Dandy-jim Clown Dancer Tin Wind-up (dakotapaul) Vintage Popeye Roller Skating Wind Up Tin Toy Japan Marx Spinach Pipe WorksEarly 1930s Marx Uncle Wiggly Wind-uo Toy Car W/ Box - Nice! (dakotapaul) Marx Sparkling Tank W/box-vintage 1930's Wind Up W/wooden Whls- Near Mint W/box!Rare Vintage 1926 Marx Hey Hey Chicken Snatcher Wind Up Tin Toy Litho AmericanaTin Windup 50's Girl Feeding Chickens Toy W Original Box Works Great Tps Japan"rare" Nomura Walk Santa Claus Occupied Japan Celluloid Wind Up ToyRare Vintage Tin Wind-up Sparking Space Robot Space Elephant Toy Yoshiya Japan Scarce Original Tin Lithograph Wind-up Robot Space Commando Toy Nomura JapanRare Vintage 1940's Nylint Tin Litho Cushman Wind Up Scooter. Minty!! Works!!Vintage Cragstan Mechanical 1940's 50's Tin Wind Up Toy Pirate 10555 With BoxAntique 1912 Alabama Coon Jigger 685 Figure Dancer Marke Lehmann No Reserve!Antique Schuco Clockwork Wind Up Tin Plate Felt Covered Drinking Boy Toy Rare Vintage Windup Racing Motorcycle Cycle Bike Friction Tin Toy Vintage 1930's Popeye J. Chein Tin Wind Up Walking Toy Litho Works Wadle 1932Old Tin Linemar Popeye Rollover Tank *vintage Japan Wind-up ToyVintage 40's Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Walt Disney Donald Duck DuetAntique Wind-up Tin Litho 1912 Marke Lehmann 685 Alabama Figural Dancer No Res! Rare Set Of 3 Submarine Ship Tin Clockwork Toy Flotilla Marke Hess Hjl Germany Vintage 1962 Hanna Barbera Marx Tin Key Wind Fred Flintstone Dino Dinosaur ToyVintage 1940's Unique Art Mfg Artie Clown Driving Jeep Tin Windup Car AntiqueLionel Disney Donald Duck & Pluto Handcar Wind Up Toy No.1107 In Box Attic Find1906 Lehmann's Crawling Beetle Wind Up Tin Toy # 431 Works Great, Box Included Rare Vintage Linemar Jiminy Cricket Squeak Tin Toy Marx Japan Litho Walt DisneyVintage Marx Tin Litho "jumpin' Jeep" Wind Up ToyTps Japan Chef On Rollerskate Wind-up Tin Toy 6 1/4 Inches Tall. Works GreatOriginal C.1930 Marx Wwi Doughboy Army Tank Tin Litho Wind-up MecanicalVintage Marx Motorcycle Cop Wind-up Tin Toy 1950's Antique Vintage 1930's Wood & Metal Wind-up Outboard Motor 15" Toy BoatKingsbury Greyhound Bus - Wind-up Tin Antique Toy1930s J.chein Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Drummer Boy SoldierVery Rare! German Tin Windup Fighting Goats - Georg Einfalt - 1920'sHobo Roller Skating Clown T.p.s. Japan Litho Tin Wind-up Toy W Box (dakotapaul Rare Wind Up Clockwork Tin Toy Tank 22/1 W Soldier Germany 1920's Gely Tippco1930's French Deco Streamline Fire Ladder Truck Tin Wind Up Vintage Germany Schuco Solisto Wind Up Violin Playing Clown Tin Toy W/ Box & KeyAuto Speedway Game By Automatic Toy Co. C-1940s!!! Race Car Wind Up W/box!!!Rare Marx 1938 General Alarm Fire House Tin Wind Up Litho Toy 1930sVery Rare Vintage Takara R2d2 Wind Up Toy Star Wars Japan Wind-up Walker 1978Pre War Japan Wind Up Boy On Trike W/box - 1930's - MasudayaTin Toy Motorcycles, Fire Trucks. Hoch & Beckmann, Carousel, Us Z. Germany.Vintage Marx Merry Makers Wind Up Mouse Mice Band Tin Toy LithoMib 1950s Tin Litho Wind Up Cock Fighters Toy Made In Japan Rare Tps Gay Nineties Wind Up Litho Gent Tricycle Tin Toy - Old VintageVintage 1960 Ideal Mr Machine With BoxTin Fun Fair Wolverine Wind Up Style Toy Carnival Circus Marx Strauss Xlnt CondTps Japan Mechanical Clown On Roller Wind-up Tin Toy 6 1/4 Inches W/original BoxScarce Vintage Windup Indian Motorcycle Police Bike Friction Tin Toy Linemar1930's Wolverine Tin Wind Up Jet Roller Coaster With Box. A+. Works. No ReserveOld Tin Marx Dippy Dumper *vintage Wind-up Toy TruckLtd Toy Stamp & 1950s Ideal 14" Thumbelina Doll W Wind-up Motion & Tagged OutfitOld Lionel Craft Pressed Steel Wind Up Pleasure Craft Boat With Flag & Stand