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]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Antique 1930s Marx Police Patrol Siren Wind Up Tin Litho Motorcycle Motorbike 1938 Marx Camouflage Sparkling Motorcycle Tin Litho W/u Toy Japan 8.5" Arnold 560 Tin Wind-up Vintage Motorcycle Litho Toy A560 ModelRare German Gunthermann Tin Windup Toy Circus Clown Performing On Horse 1900'sAntique 1930s Marx Rookie Cop Siren Wind Up Tin Litho Motorcycle Motorbike 1930s Penny Toy Black Americana Dancing Jigger Tin Toy Jazzbo Jim Marx GermanRare Tipp & Co Germany Tinplate Volkswagen Vw Beetle Split Window Tippco !'the Drunkard" Wind-up Toy, Circa 1899-1900, From Ferdinand MartinAntique Toy Car, Pressed, Wind Up, Marx (?) Late 30s? Vintage 1940's Wyandotte Mechanical Humphrey Mobile Tin Litho Windup Toy NiceAntique Germany Tin Litho Lehmann Wind-up Oh My Alabama Coon Jigger1970`s Popy Windup Tin Litho Great Mazinger Robot Shogun Warrior Toy Japan 9.5" Rare 1930s Windup Newspaper Boy - Tippco Germany% 1950's J. Chein Tin Wind Up Ride-a-rocket 18 Inches TallR1054.wind Up Chair Shaking Kid 1930s 7 Inches Tall, Vg, Working Condition Adorable Antique Ernst Heubach Bisque Laughing Boy Wind Mechanical Musical DollTin Old Girard Marx The Joy Line Railroad Train Set O Scale Wind Up Toy Cars Antique Vintage Matador & Bull Tin Litho Wind-up ToyVintage Mettoy Tin Litho Motorcycle Windup Toy Police Patrol TippcoPopeye Carrying Parrot Cages Wind-up Toy By Marx, Circa 1930's:) 1960's Marx Tin Litho Mar Lines Disney Windup TrainSkating Waiter Wind-up Toy, Circa 1950's, From JapanAntique/vintage Rare 1930's S.g.airplane Tin Wind Up Toy Made In GermanyFelix The Cat Rare Original Vintage Tin Scooter Windup Toy Circa 1930Marx Doughboy Wind Up Tank U.s.a. 1930's Vintage Tin Litho Toy Very Nice & WorksRare Vintage 1956 Pango Pango Wind Up African Dancer Works Original ConditionSparkling Space Gun Planet Patrol Wind-up Toy From MarxSchuco 3000 Prewar 1930's Tin Toy Wind Up Car Germany & Rare Original Box & KeyVery Nice 1940's Marx Pressed Steel Wind Up Log Truck In Original BoxLehmann Tin Windup Toy 550: Aha Delivery Van, TruckNear Mint Marx Safety Highway Express Set # 2020 W/ Box No Reserve (dakotapaul)Vintage 1930s J Chein Co. Hercules Mechanical Ferris Wheel Wind Up Tin Litho ToyVintage Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Meteor Tin Train W/track Marx Wind-up:) 1960's Japan Tin Litho Wind Up Space Robot Elephant Bubble Eyes SparklingUnique Art Kiddie Cyclist Vintage Tin Wind Up Toy Boy On Tricycle Tin LithographVintage Vw Bus Wind-up - DuxAlps Japan Skater Chef Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy Working 6 1/4" TallVintage Drgm Cko Tin Wind Up German Flip Top Convertible Vw Volkswagen Toy Car:) 1960's Japan Tin Litho Wind Up Space Robot Dog Bubble Eyes 7 InchesAntique Lehmann Wind Up Tut Tut Germany Drgm Tin Truck Not Working Use For PartsVintage Marx Charleston Trio Tin Windup Toy 1921 Black AmericanaMint! Vintage Prewar Japan Celluloid Windup "santa Claus" W/box - 1930's!Biller Wind Up Tin Toy Crane Western Germany Original Boxed Very RareTippco Tco Tin Airplane Batterie Lufthansa Original Box Very Made In GermanyAntique 1930's Marx Windup Tin Toy Litho Figure Bicycle Tricycle Kiddie CyclistVintage Rare Boxed Mystery Coupe Tin Wind-up Toy Car MarxUs Zone Germany Wind Up Airplane Huki Hk 541 Works Perfect Propellers Moves1940's Germany Circus Elephant Basket Ball Action Tin Litho W/u Rare Orig Box Tps Pango Pango African Dancer Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy Working 6" TallOld Antique 1922 Toonerville Toy Trolley Wind-up Fontaine Fox German Germany Biller Figuro Tin Toy Wind Up Car Us Zone Germany 3 Different Movings WorksTin Litho 'smokey Joe The Climbing Fireman' By Marx, Circa 1930'sLine Mar Violinist Tin Windup ToyRare Orig Vintage 1965 Venus Robot Wind Up Ko Yoshiya Japan Plastic Space ToyVintage Circa 1940's J. Chein Tin Litho Windup Roller CoasterRare 1930's Louis Marx Popeye Handcar,w/box Excellent Condition!!Vintage Ideal Toy Hollis Ny Mr Machine Wind Up Plastic 17" Robot And Partial BoxMusical Circus - Tin Horse Drawn Drum Toy - Cool Vintage Parade Antique Toy NiceL411 Vintage Rare Ichiko Tin Litho Wind Up Race Car Toy Made In Japan - Works!Dick Tracy 1949 Marx Tin Toy Police Car Squad Car No. 1 Great Shape