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    

50's Nomura Earthman Tin Toy Wind-up Spaceman Robot Tn Japan WorksRare Tippco Germany Tin Wind-up Tc-1334 Airplane 1930s Tinplate Plane Distler !Vintage Louis Marx Merrymakers Band Tin Wind-up Toy With Box1920s Louis Marx Ring A Ling Circus Tin Wind Up-ringmaster Activates The FiguresVintage 1940’s Arnold Toys Mac 700 Motorcycle Wind-up Toy/germanyVintage Antique 1930's Wind-up Marx Tin Car With A Driver 9" LongVintage Marx 1936 Popeye And Olive Oil Jigger Wind Up ToyVintage 1920s/30s German Tippco Tin Litho Wind-up Two Seated Motorcycle ToyVintage Tps Japan Skating Black Waiter Wind-up Toy Black Americana WorksDrgm 772 Lehmann - Tin Toy Garage + 2 Wind-up Cars - Vintage AntiqueAntique Tin Toy R7 Wind Up Robot! No Reserve!1940's~marx Toys~tin Litho Wwii Wind Up Airplane~u.s. Army Bomber Fighter Plane~A Rare Tco Tippco 587 Motorcycle And SidecarVintage Marx 1936 Popeye Jigger Wind Up ToyLehmann Tap Tap The Gardener Wind Up Toy 1903 Vintage Made In GermanyExtremely Rare Vintage Tri-ang Minic Pre-war Presentation Set, Circa 1936 Vintage Marx Wind Up Tin Litho Climbing Fireman With Original Box~~1930's~~marx Toylands Farm Products Milk Wagon Tin Litho "wind Up" Toy (nr)1922 Toonerville Trolley Tin Windup Toy Nifty GermanyAntique Lehmann Old German Litho Tin Wind-up Wild West Bucking Bronco Child ToyVintage Antique Tin Wind Up Pop Eye ExpressC 1910 Lehmann's Tin Litho Wind-up Autobus 590-germany Tin ToyVintage Marx 1940’s Policeman On Motorcycle Wind-up ToyLtd Toy Stamp & 1960s Japanese Wind Up Ufo Shogun Warrior RobotRare Vintage Small German Nifty Nirona Childs Toy Windup Gramophone Phonograph1930 Marx "amos And Andy Wind Up Taxi". Complete And Original In Working OrderAntique Arnold Wind Up Metal Motorcycle Toy With KeyTippco Esso Petrol/gasolene Pump Car Windup/winder/key Tin Toy Station Vintage Marx No.3 Police Motorcycle W/sidecar Wind-up Toy, 1930’sLouis Marx Co 1960s Wind Up Climbing Popeye Character Toy In Original BoxVintage Tin Wind Up Marx Joy Rider Crazy Car Coupe Linemar Jalopy Hobo ToyAntique Vintage 1930's Marx Tin Wind Up Firemans Siren Fire Cheif Car Toy As IsVintage Marx 1932 Popeye Walking Parrots Wind-up ToyArnold Co. German Tin W/u Ship Bremen 9" Good Working Condition 1930'sTerrific Rare Naito Shoten Interplanetary Explorer Robot Tin Wind-up Toy - WorksOld Tin Marx Tractor W/box *vintage Wind-up Farm Or Construction ToyVintage Linemar 1950’s Walt Disney Mickey Mouse On Roller Skates Wind-up ToyMarx 1940's Wwii Tin Lithographed Wind Up Fighter Plane Twin Engine GunnerVintage Antique 50s Tin Windup Toy Zoomer Robot George G Wagner Made In JapanOld Tin Marx Sparking Tank *vintage Wind-up Army Military ToyOld Tin Marx 6 Wheel Tractor/dozer *vintage Wind-up Construction ToyAntique 1920's Ferdinand Strauss Co. "jenny The Balky Mule" Cart Tin Wind-up ToyVintage Walking Porter With BoxVintage Arnold Nr. 1100 Car Jack Tin Toy With BoxVintage Japan S&e Battery Operated Dentist Bear Tin Toy1930s J Chein Tin Wind Up Popeye The Sailor Walking Toy Works Nice Litho! Tetsujin 28 Tin Wind Up Billiken / Osaka Tin Toy Institute Rare!Vintage Small German Childs Toy Windup Kiddyphone Phonograph Record Player 1920sVintage Marx 1930's Beat It-komikal Kop-toy Wind Up Car-louis Marx Co. Number 7Marx 1960 Son Of Garloo Monster Windup Toy - WorksMarx Merrymakers Band Tin Wind UpOld Tin #27 Marx 1948 Champion Indy Race Car *vintage Wind-up ToyVintage Tin Litho Wind-up Toy Mikuni Roaring Bull Pulling Boy Works FineMinty "early" Complete Schuco Micro Racer 1040 With Key, Box & Instructions Mego Man Vintage Wind Up Toy - Tin Japanese Robot Louis Marx And Company "tricky Taxi". Tin Wind Up Toy W/box And Original Key.Vintage 1930's Popeye & Parrots Wind Up Toy In Original ConditionMarx 1930's Cowboy Rider On Horse With Lasso Tin Wind-up Toy, Lone Ranger, WorksMarx Rocket Racer 16" Nice Paint, + No Reserve +Marx Old Jalopy Tin Windup Toy Car With Repro Box Vg+ No Reserve Free Shipping