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]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Early 1900s Jeu De Course 8 Horse Race Racing Game Wind UpGerman Wind-up Tin Toy Woman Driving Auto - Marke StockMarx 1920s Girard Joy Line Train Engine 350/351 Koal Car Wind-up W/ 5 Cars SetRare Kadi Lehmann German Tin Litho Chinese Coolies Toy Vintage 1935 Marx Tin Litho Popeye Express Tin Windup Toy Works Boys & GirlsVintage 1910 Strauss Mfg Co. "tombo" The Alabama Coon Jigger Wind Up Tin Toy !!!Vintage Marx Toys Japan 1939 Walt Disney Pinocchio Wind Up Walker Litho Tin ToyOriginal 1930's Linemar (japan) Popeye Dancing Jigger On A Roof Tin Wind Up Toy Marke Windup Tin Toy Horseless Carriage Says Dr Patent Engl Patent 1930's ?50's1930`s Tippco Wind-up Tin Litho Bonnet Bus W/ Driver N° 904 Prewar Germany 9"Vintage Oho Funny Harry Gama 130 Tin Wind-up Toy Tractor Western GermanyRare And Antique Lehmann Tin Plate Wind Up Beatle Toy #431Vintage Authentic 1927 Buck Rogers Spaceship Tin Wind-up Tin Toy By Louis MarxVintage 30's 40's Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Motorcycle W Policeman & SirenJml Pre War Motorbike Tin ToySchuco Tin Lith Mechanical Wind Up Toy Angel Playing Drums Made In Germany Works* Rare Schuco Tin Toy Pre-war 30's Donald Duck Mechanical Wind Up Figure DisneyBing Tin Wind Up Toy Car 1920s Model T Ford 4 Door W Lady Driver GermanyK.o Yoshiya "venus Robot" Wind Up Vtg Japan,horikawa,nomura,masudaya,yonezawa'the Drunkard' Multiple Action Wind-up Toy From Ferdinand Martin Vintage 1910 Strauss Mfg Co. "tombo" The Alabama Coon Jigger Wind Up Tin ToyVintage Ferdinand Strauss Inc. "tombo" The Alabama Coon Jigger Wind Up Tin Toy !Rare Vintage Bing Childs Toy Size Tin Lithograph Wind Up Phonograph GramophoneVintage Winner-23 Space Rocket Kdp Exelo Japan Battery Operated Tin Litho ToyOld Tin German Distler Car *vintage Germany Wind-up ToyVintage 1910 Strauss Mfg Co. "tombo" The Alabama Coon Jigger Wind Up Tin ToyOld Tin German Clown On Mule *vintage Wind-up Germany ToyLithographed Tin Wind-up Toy Clown On Bucking Donkey D.r.g.h. Us Zone Germany 6"Rare~arnold Mac 700 Red Version German Tin Toy Motorcycle~western GermanySchuco Key Wind Toy Car Elektro Razzia 5509 ~ Magico Auto 2008 ~ Mirakocar 1001Old Tin Marx Jumpin Jeep *vintage Wind-up Army Military ToyVintage 1921 Ferdinand Strauss " Jazzbo Jim" Jigger Black Americana Wind Up Toy!1930's Lindstrom Palmolive Advertising Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Cab & Truck W KeyOld Tin Marx Army Corps 12 Tank *vintage Wind-up Military ToyVintage Marx Somstepa Coon Jigger Wind Up Tin Toy Black Americana Rare Vintage Tin Litho Marusan San Japan Wind Up Monkey Drummer Merry Go Round +Vintage Polly Portable Toy Size Wind Up Phonograph Gramophone Victrola Rare Vintage Arnold Mac 700 Wind Up Motorcycle Tin Toy ~ Nice !Vintage Japan 1950's Carnival Barker Smiling Sam The Circus Man Tin Litho Toy 1920s Orobr German Wind Up Tin Toy Steam Roller 100% Original & Complete - Rare1940's Lil Abner Dogpatch Band Tin Toy Watch Video Below!!Mechanized "robby" Robot. Forbidden Planet 1956 - Mechanically UpdatedAntique Marx The Big Parade Tin Litho Wind Up Toy 1928 Rare Vintage As Is1950s Chein #135 Mechanical Disneyland Melody Player With 4 Music RollsAntique Tin Litho Marx Busy Bridge Wind Up Toy 1930s 24" LongVintage Tin Litho Toy Spaceman/robot Wind-up, Made By Tn Japan 7-5/8" Tall 1932 Vintage Chein Popeye In The Barrel Tin Wind Up Toy Boys & Girls Usa Vintage 1946 Marx Walt Disney's Donald Duck Duet Tin Wind Up ToySchuco Blechdampfer Queen I Wind Up Tin-plate Steamship #01755 Mint In Box! Nr!Antique Marx Harold Lloyd Tin Wind Up Funny Face Walker Toy Movie Star As FoundVintage Strauss " Boob Mcnutt" Walking Wind Up Toy Beautiful Tin LithoVintage Tin Wind-up Toy, Fish Space Ship (???), Made In Japan* Schuco Tin Toy Wind Up Sport Motorcycle #1012 - Made In Germany Bike Byke #5Early Ferdinand Strauss Tin Wind Up Trik Auto Toy Car Open Roadster 1920sOld Tin German Drummer *vintage Wind-up Germany ToyVintage Louis Marx Tin Litho Funny Tiger Wind Up Drummer Toy, Good, WorkingPair 1950's Occupied Japan Tin Lithograph Wind Up Toy Monkeys Playing BanjosVintage 1930s Little Orphan Annie Tin Litho Key Windup Sandy Toy Dog WorksOld Tin Marx Turnover Plane *vintage Wind-up Military Toy AirplaneSchuco 3007 Submarino Vintage Wind-up Tin Toy Submarine Germany