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 Louis Marx & Company New York City Tin Train Airplane Wind-up ToyAntique Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Unique Art Co Hobo Train Minty Very Rare 1929 Louis Marx Tin Merry Makers Band Wind Up Mice & Piano Works Great!!1930s Louis Marx Tin Racer Auto Art Deco Race Car Great Color! 16" Scarce OneAntique Marx Old Tin Litho Cartoon Climbing Fireman On Ladder Wind-up Toy & Box1956 Juggling Popeye And Olive Oyl - Excellent Condition/boxRare Meccano Constructor Car No2, England Circa 1930, Excellent.1923 Strauss Santee Claus Santa Wind Up Tin ToyVintage Arnold Mac 700 Tin Wind Up Toy Motorcycle - Made In U.s. Zone GermanyYonezawa 1950 Space Explorer Astronaut Robot Japan Wind Up Tin Toy Works!Extra Rare Mettoy England Tin Wind-up 3084 Racing Car #7 In Box Racer Tinplate !Vintage 1930's Kingsbury 1936 Lincoln Zephyr Pressed Steel Windup Toy Car Parts1920s Toonerville Trolley Wind Up Tin Toy Looks/works Great!Vintage Marx Amos 'n' Andy Fresh Air Taxi Wind-up Toy Exc! W/box (dakotapaul)Marx Popeye Tin Toy Express Walker1960's Marx King Kong 8" Tall Wind Up Tin Figure With Gray Fur Works Fine Vg+ Nr1920s Gebruder Bing German Tin Ford Model A Sedan & Driver Wind Up AutoVintage Marx Universal Studios Frankenstein Plastic & Metal Wind Up ToyBing Of Germany 1920s Airplane Carousel Tin Wind Up Toy Sharp! Rare!Strauss Flying Airship Zepplin Wind Up Tin Toy Lehmann Marx Xlnt With Orig Box1928 Selrite Tin Home Run King Baseball Wind Up Babe Ruth Fine Working-hits BallWolverine Zilotone W/6 Discs Xylophone Music Tin Wind Up Toy 1920s Orobr German Tin Double Decker Bus W/driver Excellent Working Wind Up!Vintage Marx Hard To Find-complete "magic Garage/car Set" Tin W/up No ReserveFine Wind Up Tin Toy Bus Truck Car Japan Ca 1950s Trademark Gm In DiamondVintage Yonezawa Japan Tin Litho Wind Up Robot Spaceman Space Man Robot 1950's1920s Mint Lehmann "also" Windup Car W/driver Complete, Original, WorkingTin Toy Motorcycle With Side Machine Gun.made By Kellerman.1940's. Germany.worksOld Tin Marx Climbing Fighting Tank W/box *vintage Wind-up Army Toy'50s Unique Art - Howdy Doody Band Windup Tin Toy. Very Very Good ConditionOld Tin Marx Rollover Plane *vintage Wind-up Toy AirplaneMarx Popeye The Pilot Tin Windup Toy 1940 - Works!! No Reserve!!20s Bing Model T Windup W/woman Driver Complete, Working, Original, No Repairs1900 Bing/sg/m&k German Tin Carousel 4 Horse & Riders! Large Merry Go Round 12"Rare Schuco Germany Tin Wind-up 975 Dancing Couple Sailor & Girl 1930 Tinplate !Antique Tin Wind-up Lithograph 1920's Einfalt Germany Fighting Cocks Roosters 1950s Technofix German Tin Motorcycle & Rider Wind Up Ge 258 1940 Marx Antique Rollover Plane Tin Litho Old Wind-up Army Airplane Toy & BoxMarx Tin Popeye Jigger Windup Toy 1935 - Works!!! No Reserve!!!Popeye By Linemar 1956 Near Mint To Mint Skater Toy - Beautiful!Vintage Hafner Wind-up Toy Train & 5 Passenger Cars Tin Copper & Green Works!Vintage Linemar Marx Mickey Mouse Cyclist Bicycle Toy Tin Wind Up Tricycle JapanRace Car Audi Auto Union Tin Wind-up Distler Made Us Zone Germany 1940's Rare1920s Lehmann "aha" Near Mint Delivery Van Windup Complete, Original, WorkingVintage 1950 Keystone Metal Wind Up Milk Delivery Truck. 100% Orig. No Reserve Antique Tin Friction Car With Boat & Trailer With Box! Japan Low Starting PriceAntique Lehmann Tin Windup Toy - Germany - Donkey Cart With ClownVintage Linemar Marx Donald Duck Cyclist Bicycle Toy Tin Wind Up Tricycle Japan1920s Lehmann German Tin Stubborn Donkey/balky Mule Excellent Working Wind UpVintage Schoenhut Circus Horse And AcrobatVtg Louis Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Mechanical Speed Racer Orig Box 6"Rare Vintage Tin Wind-up Toy Champ On Ice Skating Trio HungarianLtd Toy Stamp & 1935 Chrysler Airflow Rare Steel Wind Up Car 16 InchJ. Chein Tin Litho Wind Up Ferris Wheel 1950's Hercules With Original Box NiceMarx Cowboy Rider €Strauss Leaping Lena Tin Wind Up Toy Marx Bing Lehmann Superb Near Mint Cond!Sutcliffe Windup Battleship Boat Nos - Never Used Vintage Toy W/ Sealed PartsAntique 1922 Strauss Wind Up Tin Toy Parcel Post Truck Very Rare Good ColorLionel - Craft , Tin Wind Up Boat,- Pre War Toy - 1935 ( I Think )Rare Marx England Made "speed Cop" #434 Speedway Complete Set With Box H/2/find