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    

Rare Gunthermann Tin Toy Motorcycle Made In Germany Sg Motorbike Wind Up 1936 Lionel, #44 Speed Boat In Original BoxAntique Marke Lehmann Tin Plate Lithograph Also Wind-up Automobile Car Toy NrAntique 1921 Strauss Ham & Sam Tin Litho Wind Up The Minstrel Team Band CleanVintage 1930’s Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup 4 Door Sedan Toy CarVintage Pressed Steel Kingsbury Wind Up Red Arrow Toy Land Speed Race Car Rare 50s Tipp Tippco Tco-59 Motorcycle W/sidecar Complete, Works, Original Rare Tipp & Co Germany Tin Wind-up D-olaf Bomber Airplane 1937 Lineol Tippco !Near Mint 1940’s Red Arnold Mac 700 Motorcycle With Original Box & Original KeyGunthermann Fire Brigade Ladder Truck Ca. 1910 GermanyRare Wolverine Mystery Car Tin Wind Up W/ Box Marx Strauss Near Mint Condition1967 Yoshiya, High Wheel Robot In Orig. Box W/insertsAntique 1920s Buffalo Toy & Tool Aero Speeders Tin Airplane Amusement Park ToyDistler Packard + Rare Original Box - Us Zone Germany1950 Marx/linemar~tumbling Popeye Tin Wind Up~excellent With Scarce BoxTin Toy Lehmann German Zick Zack England Zig Zag Black Americana Windup GermanyVintage 1920s Katz Toy Ny Tin Windup Charles Lindbergh Spirit Of St. Louis Plane1930s Marx Little Orphan Annie Sandy Dog W Box & Dog House Tin Wind Up ToyVintage Tinplate Wind Up High Wheel Robot Toy, Yoshiya, JapanC.1933 Ingap (italy), Dkw F2 Streamlined Clockwork Sedan1930 Scarce Chein Popeye Puncher With Floor Bag Boxer Tin Windup~working~usaAntique Mechanical Wind Up Turtle Or Tortoise Hotel Service Call Bell Cir. 1880sRare! 1930s German Shuco Tin Charlie Chaplin Windup Toy Working!!1946 Tin Windup Mac 700 Motorcycle Germany Runs Shines Purrs Automoton & Key WowOld Antique Vintage Marx Tricky Taxi Tin Toy Wind-up Litho Car 7108 Metal No Key1936 Packard 4-door Sedan Tin Windup Toy Nomura JapanJapan Linemar Disney Mickey Mouse Unicyclist Wind UpMarx Popeye Express Wind Up Tin With BoxVintage Antique 1930's Marx Siren Police Car Pressed Steel Wind Up SteerableStrauss Mechanical Toys - Monkey Circus Trade - Mark Reg. - 1900Vintage Arnold Mac 700 Tin Wind Up Motorcycle Toy Us Zone Germany And KeyLarge Windup Celluloid Henry On Elephant - 1930s JapanMechanical Pluto The Drum Major By Linemar NmibOld Antique Vintage Marx Tricky Taxi Tin Toy Wind-up Litho Car 7108 Metal No KeyVintage Marx Wind-up Tin Litho Ww1 #5 Rollover Tank With Original BoxVtg Louis Marx Streamline Mechanical Speedway Racer 4 Ace 1 Tin Cars Track + BoxGreppert & Kelch Germany Tin Wind-up 551 Mandarin Pulling Cart Lehmann China !Vintage 1930’s Girard Tin Windup Toy Tri-motor Air Lines Plane Airmail AirplaneVintage Rabbit In Cabbage Automaton Plays Music Roullet & Decamps ?1930's Nash 4-door Sedan Tin Windup Toy Tomiyama Trading Co. Japan1930s Wolverine Zilotone Working Clown Playing Xylophone And RecordMarx Tin Windup Hee Haw The Balky Mule With Box Excellent!! Vintage Old Tin Metal Windup Ship Boat Bing Arnold Marklin Germany? Antique ToyMarx Popeye Flyer Tin Wind Up1939 Tin Windup Toy Disney's Pinnochio Wonderful!Vintage Old Pre- World War 11- Tin Metal Windup Ship Boat Germany? Antique Toy1939 Flash Gordon Rocket Fighter 5 Tin Wind-up ToyVintage Ride A Rocket, J Chein & Co., Merry Go Round Wind Up Tin Toy, Works1950s Japan Key-wind Litho Tin €1921 Strauss Jazzbo Jim Banjo Player "the Dancer On The Roof" Tin Wind Up ToyMarx. Popeye Express- Wheelbarrow Baggage Vintage Wind Up Toy. 30s. Vintage Schuco Juggling Clown #965 Wind-up ToyRare - 1930's Louis Marx - Wind Up - Popeye HandcarVintage Schuco Sonny #2005 Wind-up Toy Car !!!!!Vintage Marx Toys Tin Roll Over Tank Wind Up ToyVintage Japan Tps Linemar 1950’s Clown On Roller Skates Wind-up Toy1950s Haji Donkey Riding Boy W/ Original Box Tin Wind Up Toy Japan LinemarVintage Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Milton Berle Character Wind Up CarVintage Girard Railroad Handcar Tin Litho Wind-up ToyTrue Vintage Tps Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy Clown Trainer & His Acrobatic Dog