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    

Vintage Marx Merry Makers Wind-up Tin Toy,litho Mouse Band,excellent ConditonMarx Rare Wind-up Boxed Army Train Set #1526, Orig. 1942 Scarce Original Tin Lithograph Wind-up Robot Space Commando Toy Nomura JapanRare Vintage Tin Wind-up Sparking Space Robot Space Elephant Toy Yoshiya Japan Rare Vintage Windup Racing Motorcycle Cycle Bike Friction Tin Toy GebrÜder Fleischmann 20" Tin Clockwork Ocean Liner U. S. Zone GermanyAntique Vintage 1930's Wood & Metal Wind-up Outboard Motor 15" Toy BoatVintage 1962 Hanna Barbera Marx Tin Key Wind Fred Flintstone Dino Dinosaur ToyOrkin Cabin Cruiser 32"-clockwork Tin Boat-all Original Pressed Steel.Vintage Linemar Popeye Turnover Tank Mint Condition In Box Wind Up ToyLionel Disney Donald Duck & Pluto Handcar Wind Up Toy No.1107 In Box Attic Find Rare Set Of 3 Submarine Ship Tin Clockwork Toy Flotilla Marke Hess Hjl Germany 1930's Vintage Marx/hoge Fire Chief Coupe Wind Up Pressed Steel Toy Car No ResRare Vintage 1930 Kingsbury Pressed Steel Windup Toy Fire Chief Car – Original!Diamond 12 Space Atom Pistols Wholesale Box, Japan Vintage Tin Toy Gun 1950s NosScarce Vintage Windup Indian Motorcycle Police Bike Friction Tin Toy LinemarJ. Chein Tin Litho Toy Rollercoaster 1940's VintageVintage Marx Tin Litho "jumpin' Jeep" Wind Up ToyRare Superb Pre War Large Size Celluloid & Tin Boxers Fighting Toy Windup JapanRare Wind Up Clockwork Tin Toy Tank 22/1 W Soldier Germany 1920's Gely Tippco~cool Vintage Wind Up Pressed Steel Marx Red Hot Rod Car ~ Fun Collector's Item1930's Louis Marx Wind-up Tin Racer Indy CarMib 1950s Tin Litho Wind Up Cock Fighters Toy Made In Japan Tin Toy Motorcycles, Fire Trucks. Hoch & Beckmann, Carousel, Us Z. Germany.Vintage Lil Abner Dogpatch 4 Tin Wind Up Toy Band Pioneer Unique Art Works!Piston 100 Shot Gun Wholesale Box 12 Pistols,japan Vintage Tin Toy Cap 1950s NosRare Large 18 ¼” Ws Prewar Clockwork 429 Airplane Monoplane Toy Germany Original C.1930 Marx Wwi Doughboy Army Tank Tin Litho Wind-up Mecanical1950s Schuco West Germany Micro Racer Wind Up Toy Volkswagen Car W Box Runs GoodWagon Fantasy Land, Japan (tps) Vintage Mechanical Wind-up Tin Toy 1950s Exc1940 Marx Popeye The Pilot Tin Wind-up Toy Vintage Great Working ConditionVintage Antique Tin Wind Up, " Amos" By MarxChild's Antique Mouse In A Squirrel Cage Mechanical Tin Toy Wind-up Paris FranceOld Tin Marx Range Rider *vintage Wind-up Cowboy Western Toy1950's Marx "old Jalopy" Tin Wind-up Toy CarVintage Marx American Railroad Express Agency Tin Litho Toy Truck 1920's Wind-upVintage Marx Merry Makers Wind Up Mouse Mice Band Tin Toy LithoTin Marx Uncle Wiggily Whoopee Car Wind Up , Works, Very Good ConditionMidget #7 Race Car, Marx, Wind Up ToyVintage Af Prewar Hiawatha Freight Engine & 6 Cars.. Clockwork Locomotive #638Vintage 40's Distler 3200 Bmw Wanderer Wind Up Car With Box & KeyVintage Antique Tin Wind Up Andy, By MarxMarx Wind Up Vintage Steel Midget Racer Race Car Lot Of 5 Vintage Toy Cat Collection Alps, Line Mar, Occupied Japan, Germany 50's Tps "skippy The Tricky Clown Cyclist" Tin Litho Wind Up Powered No ReserveSchuco Clown - 986/2 - Clockwork Clown Playing Drums And CymbalsEarly 1900s Gunthermann Germany Litho Tin Windup Toy Fire Chief Car W/ 2 FiremenVintage 1920's Girard Mail Airplane,bi Wings. Well Preserved.motor WorksVintage 1940's Kit Car - Toy Founders Inc Wind Up Two Tone Green Convertible UsaChild's Antique Mechanical Litho Tin Toy Of Women Riding An Egg Goose Duck Horse Vintage Uncle Wiggly 1935 Howard R. Garis Tin Litho Wind Up WorksVeb Patent-lineol 800 Limousine Car, Germany Wind-up Vintage Tin 1950s Box MibVintage 40's Zone Germany Distler 3200 Bmw Wanderer Wind Up Car W/ KeyOrkin 2nd Series Battleship 24"-clockwork Tin Boat- Pressed Steel.Marklin Prewar O Gauge Twe 930 Clockwork Train1930s J.chein Tin Litho Wind Up Toy PenguinVintage Made In Japan Tin Windup Fireman Spaceman Robot Toy WorkingAntique Tin Marx Funny Flivver Vintage Wind-up 1930's Toy Car Antique Mikuni Tin Windup Toy The Sword Fighter WorksLinemar Toys Yogi Bear Wind Up