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 Vintage Wind Up Zeppelin Airship Space Plane Toy Sg Gunthermann GermanyMarx Spic Coon Drummer Tin Wind UpRare Vintage Lehmann Autobus 590, Germany Circa 1907.Vintage 1930’s Deco Era Chrysler Airflow Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Toy CarAntique Ferdinand Strauss "santee Claus Sleigh" Lithographed Tin Windup ToyRare 1920s Antique Ives Mechanical Clockworks Wind-up Automaton Walking Bear ToyStrauss Thrifty Tom's Jigger BankMarx Spic And Span Tin Wind Up RareOriginal Atomic Robot Man Antique Windup Tin Lithograph Mechanical Toy Nr $9.991950s Vintage Tin Lithograph Wind-up Space Trooper Robot By Haji Japan1940 Marx Popeye The Pilot Tin Wind-up ToyOld Tin 1920's-30's Marx Doughboy Tank *vintage Wind-up Military ToyKingsbury Keene Wind Up Tin Car 12" Long Auto Antique Dog Pull Tin Toy Wind Up German Lehmann Gunthermann ? Parts Repair Kingsbury Electric Lights Wind Up Tin Car 13" Long Auto Vintage Tin Litho Wind-up Falcon C-59 Speed Race Boat Toy Tm Modern Toys Japan1930 Marx Toy Amos & Andy Wind-up Fresh Air Taxi Beautiful & Works Great!Salto The Flipping Dog Windup 1930s Tin Litho Toy & Orig Box By Gunthermann New York Central Lines Model 1031 Wind Up Train Locomotive, Rare??Vintage Japan Takara 70s Jeeg Wind Up Tin Toy Popy Bullmark Vintage 1950s Germany Schuco 5301 Ingenico Tin Wind-up Buick Toy Car1930s Schuco/schreyer German Wind Up Boy Lifting Girl Excellent Working ToyDelivery Tin Motorcycle Toy Japan Ko Alps Yonezawa Bandi Marusan Harley YonezowaPlayland Whip Large Toy By J. Chein 1950’s Vintage Tin Windup ToyVintage Schuco Solisto Wind Up German ToyVintage 40's Marx "rookie Cop" Tin Litho Wind Up Motorcycle Toy With Siren SoundVintage Original Schuco Studio #1050 Windup Tin Litho Toy Car NrAntique German Wind-up Go-round 4 Kids In Canoes1950's Celluloid & Tin Louis Marx Cowgirl Western Tricycle Wind Up Toy W Box Antique German Tin Wind Up Coach Van Large Toy 1900s Glass WindowsOld Tin Marx Jolly Joe Army Jeep *vintage Wind-up Military ToyVintage Tin Clockwork Mettoy Police Rider Motorcycle. Made In England 1935-49.Vintage 1950's Wind Up Schuco Clown #951 With #950 Box Works No Reserve40's Marx "military" Sparkling Soldier Tin Litho W/up Camouflage Motorcycle ToyVintage Chein Tin Wind Up Toy Santa Made U.s.a.Vintage 40's Louis Marx Co. "police" Mechanical Tin Litho Motorcycle Toy No/reseVintage Ferdinand Strauss Derrick Truck Windup Metal Toy RareVintage Kohler Tin Litho Mechanical Wind Up Singing Bird W/ Box Western GermanyVintage Pair Of Tin Wind Up Slot Race Cars (2)Original Schuco #2010 Magico 10" Long Metal Windup Toy CarVintage Prameta (germany) Buick 405 Clockwork Car NrVintage 40's Louis Marx Co. "police" Mechanical Tin Litho Motorcycle Toy 4 1/4"Authentic! Schuco Turn Monkey 883 Original Box / German Instructions / KeyVintage 1950's Wind Up Schuco Tippy 990 Scotty Dog With Box Works No ReserveVintage Original Schuco Combinato #4003 Windup Tin Litho Toy Car NrVtg Easter Rabbit Duck Celluloid Tin Mechanical Bell Wind Up Toy Occupied JapanOriginal Linemar “pluto The Drum Major” Tin Wind-up Toy NrHubley Tin & Cast Iron Toy Ferris Wheel With Clockwork, Early Cast Iron ExampleLtd Toy Stamp & 1940s Disneyland Donald Duck Chein Ferris Wind Up Ferris WheelVintage Tin German Windup Toy Duck Bavaria, Gunthermann ?Vintage 40's Unique Art Mfg. "artie" Clown Driving Jeep Tin W/up Car No ReserveThe Walking Dead Zombie Walker Wind-up Series 1 Action Figure Amc Mcfarlane ToysAntique 1900's "magic Box" J.s. Germany Dancing Wind-up Tin Toy's F.a.o. SchwarzAntique 1921 Ham And Sam The Minstrel Team Strauss Corp. Working Missing PartsCourtland Walt Reach Wind Up Fire Chief CarFabulous Vintage 1940's J. Chein & Co. Windup Tin Litho Roller Coaster W/ Cars 1950s Tin Peacock Windup ToyPre War Japan Tin And Celluloid Windup Boy On Tricycle - 1930'sBiller Made In Western Germany Automatic Dock-yard Crane Vintage Wind Up Tin ToyVintage 1950's Wind Up Donkey Schuco? Working Condition No Reserve