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    

Lehmann Oh My Jigger Old German Lithograph Tin Toy No Reserve (dakotapaul) 1900s Stock German Tin 3 Wheel Early Auto &woman Driver Beautiful Trike Runabout Vintage Marx Tin Wind Up Mortimers Snerd's Home Town BandVintage 1930’s Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Toy Rumble Seat Coupe CarVintage 50's Marx "tom Corbett" Space Cadet Polaris Sparkling Tin Rocket Ship Antique Vintage Strauss No. 98 Double Decker Wind Up Clockwork Tin Litho Toy BusVintage 1940's**rare**kellermann Motorcycle Tin Windup Toy Germany U.s. Zone1949 Gunthermann German Tin Bear On Motorcycle In The Original Box Working Toy!Marx Popeye The Pilot Airplane Tin Wind UpVintage Marx Mortimer Snerd Tricky Auto Wind-up Tin Toy No Reserve (dakotapaul)Vintage Marx Streamline Tractor Trailer Truck (closed Trailer)-wind UpJazzbo Jim Banjo Dancer Circa. 1921 Unique Art Tin Litho Wind Up (dakotapaul)1921 Strauss Ham & Sam Minstrel Team Antique Tin Wind Up Toy Negro Banjo PianoJapan Linemar Wimpy On Tricycle Tin And Celluloid WindupVintage Georg Kohler,germany Toy Automaton Singing Bird Cage,tin Litho Bird1900s German Tin Double Carousel Bing/m&k Airplanes & Inside Riders Gunthermann?Japan Linemar Rollerskating Popeye Tin Wind Up1930’s Pre War Toyota Airflow Sedan With Zigzag Action NrRare Lehmann Galop Racing Car, No760, Germany Circa 1930.Vintage 50's Lupor #8 Indy 500 Tin Litho Wind Up Racer Car 11 1/2" L. No Reserve Large 13.5" Wind Up Tin Lithographed Girard Bus NrVintage Marx Dick Tracy Tin Wind Up Plastic Police Dept. Machine Gun Squad CarVintage 1930s Rare Marx Joe Penner And His Duck Goo Goo Tin Litho Windup ToyOld Tin Marx Cowboy On Rearing Horse *vintage Wind-up Western ToyKingsbury 1937 Ford 2 Dr Sedan Pressed Steel Toy For Travel Trailer--wind-up-11"Vintage 60's Marx Hanna Barbera Fred Flinstone Riding Dino W/up Tin Litho No/reFrankenstein Marx Windup Toy VintageIssmayer Tin Toy Double Phaeton Touring Car With Passengers Bing GunthermannVintage 40's Wyandotte Large Pressed Steel Roadster Convertible Wind Up Car N/rFerdinand Strauss Tip Top Porter Tin Windup Toy C. 1920 No Reserve (dakotapaul) Marx Dick Tracy B.o. Plenty Wind Up Tin Litho Walker W/rep Box F+ Free Shipping!Vintage 1962 Marx Japan Hanna Barbera Flinstones Dino Hopping Tin W/up Litho Rare Lehmann Sedan Motorcar, No765, Germany Circa 1930.Vintage Technofix #303 Cable Car Windup Tin Litho Toy W/shell Oil Gas Sign!1930 Tippco Wind-up Tin Litho Limousine Car With Driver T.c.951 Made In Germany Marklin German Tin Clockwork Wind-up Mechanical Toy SleighCoca-cola Tin Motorcycle With Polar Bears And Original Box NrRare Yonezawa - Cragstan Astronaut Space Robot Wind Up Tin Toy, Made In JapanAntique/vintage Chein Tin Wind-up PelicanLouis Marx Great Son Of Garloo Windup Monster Toy Medallion Works & Rough BoxMarx Toys Made In The United States Of America 3" Porcelain Advertising Sign Vintage Scarce1920's Chein Snowflakes And Swipes Tin Toy, Only One On Ebay!!Marx B-24 Bomber Wwii Camouflage Tin Wind Up Tin Litho Sparks 4 Props Airplane Old Girard Tin Windup Toy Airplane Monoplane Hi Wing Pilot 1920sVtg Key Wind Up Tin Toy San Japan Luxury Ship Cruise Liner United States Litho1931 Marx Merry Makers Band Member, Tin Windup Mickey Mouse Walt Disney ToyMarx Toys Stutz Cruiser Wind-up Race Car Works!!!Rare Lehmann Autohutte Double Garage , No 772, Germany Circa 1930.Vintage Tin Litho Wind-up Carters Pan-gee Funny Dancer Jig Dancin Black Man ToyOld Tin Gnk German Cow W/box *vintage Wind-up Germany ToyVintage 50's Marx Fire Dept. Chief Car #1 Wind Up Tin Litho Light/sound No Reser1963 Marx The Jetsons Express Zig Zag Train Hanna Barbera Tin Windup Robot JapanToy Airplane Tin Litho Wind-up Us Air Mail Biplane Antique Marx Steel Deco NpLot Of 4 Old Vintage Schuco Micro Racers Toy Diecast Cars Made U.s Zone GermanyVintage 50's Rare Mechanical Walking Bear With Grasscutter Tin Litho W/up No/re Marx Windup Tin Toy Early Race Car Litho #12 With Key- Extremely Rare Conplete!!Vintage 50's Marx Yellow Cab Skyview Taxi Cab #15 Tin Litho Wind Up No ReserveHobo The Roller Skating Clown T.p.s. Japan Litho Tin Wind-up Toy (dakotapaul) Schuco Lot German Diecast Tin Car Post War Tin Toy Wind UpL457- Antique Drgm Wind Up Clown On A Donkey Tin Toy Made In Germany-estate Find