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 Unique Art Mfg Co Kiddy Cyclist Tin-litho Wind-up Bell Toy, Works!Antique 1930s Unique Art Mfg Rodeo Joe Western Windup Tin Toy Crazy Car, NrAntique 1945 Lil Abner Dogpatch-4 Wind-up Tin Toy Piano Band & Box, Unique ArtKingsbury Chrysler Airflow Electric Wind Up Pressed Steel Toy Car 14 1/4" Large1912 German Penny Toy Tin Pool Billiard Player Wind Up Antique Fully FunctionalVintage 1924 Maggie & Jiggs Tin Wind Up Toy - Made In Germany - Geo Mcmanus1930's Tippco 21" Germany Tin Windup Toy Zeppelin Dlz 127 Dirigible Air ShipEarly Antique German Germany Wind Up Clown In Wheel Tin Toy 4 1/2" 30's Unique Art Sky Rangers Sr-8 Tin Lithographed Wind Up Plane-blimp Toy Tower1930 Fleischmann Germany Tin Windup 2 Funnel Liner Passenger Steam Ship Toy Boat1920's Large 11" Pre-war Japan Tin Windup Clockwork Limousine Toy Town Car1930s Unique Art Sky Rangers Sr-8 Tin Litho Wind Up Flying Airplane Toy Complete1930's Marx Blondie's Jalopy Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Car Fwd/reverse 16 1/4" LargeOriginal Vintage Schuco Donald Duck Wind Up Toy W/ Key #984*rare Original 1920 Structo Pressed Steel Wind-up Bearcat Roadster*T.p.s. Mechanical "pop-eye-pete" Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy New Old Stock 5"1$ Scarce 1950's Ehn Nbn Tin Wind-up Carnival Circus Musical ClownsAntique Unique Art Tin Toy Sky Rangers Lighthouse Airplane Zepplin Old Wind-up1930's Distler Germany Tin Windup Toy Balloon Vendor Carnival ToyVintage Us Zone Germany Tin Litho Windup CowGerman Distler Tin Motion Monkey Driving Automobile Car Waving Hat Clean! Works!1$ Very Rare Us Zone Schuco 4003 Combinato Tin Wind-up Convertible W/ Or. Box1920's Ferdinand Martin French Tin Windup Toy Climbing Fireman With LadderMarx Linemar Mechanical Knitting Minnie Mouse In Rocking Chair In Original Box Hoge Mfg. "fire Chief" Pressed Steel Toy Car Wind Up Siren Sound Lighted 14 1/4"Nice Working Socius Motorcycle By Kellermann - Worldwide ShippingVintage Wind Up Ives Toy Preacher Early Version Perfectly Working Complete 1875 Never Used Marx Buck Rogers Windup Spaceship Nearly PerfectVintage Tin Wind Up Donald Duck Linemar Toys Drummer Disney - As Is1930's Style Marklin Streamline Sedan Constructor Car With Original Box Nr 1938 Ck Japan Graham Paige #3 Tin Litho Wind Up Car 6 1/4" Large W/box-all OrigVintage Wind Up Toy Tin Horse + Celluloid Ringmaster 1930 Working Complete Rare Gescha German Tin Wind Up Toy Mercedes Compressor Racer Us Zone Germany 1945'sT.p.s. "suzy Bouncing Ball" Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy New Old Stock 5"T.p.s. Circus Clown On High Wheel-bell Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy 6.5" HighSchuco Radio 5000 Pré War Very Very Rare'51 Courtland Walts Garage Towing Service Tin Litho Wind Up Orig Truck/box N-o-s1940's Distler Wanderer Germany U.s. Zone Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Car 9 3/4" Vintage Wind Up Bear Golfer Tin Toy Golf Player Mechanical In Box Tps Japan 19501$ Near Mint Sutcliffe Tin Wind-up Unda Wunda Submarine Original BoxMs Brandenburg Girl On Scooter Motorcycle Roller 1950s Germany VespaAntique Wooden Automaton German Toy Carved Whistler Moving Head Karl GriesbaumMarx Buck Rogers Space Ship Rocket -1936 Vintage Yoshiya Japan Robby The Robot Tin Toy Windup, WorksVintage Marx Tin Litho Wind Up G-man Toy Gun Wind Up Noise & Sparks Works Sj 77fVintage Antique Tin Wind Up LloydRare! 1960`s Bandai? Large Japanese Tin Mobil Gas "indy 500" Wind-up Race Car! Vintage Louis Marx 1930's Tidy Tim Keep Your City Spick & Span Tin Windup Toy1930s Marx Skyhawk Tin Wind Up Toy Fully Functional Made In The Usa 1930s!!!!!!!Made In Occupied Japan "teddy's Cycle" Tin/celluloid Wind Up Tricycle Toy 4" Box1940's - 1950's U.s. Zone Germany Tin Windup Jockey Race Horse, & Original Box!1$ Rare 1940's Japan Tin Wind-up Fire Engine Truck W/ Sparks Boiler1930s Unique Art Sky Rangers Sr-8 Tin Litho Wind Up Flying Airplane Toy CompleteNice Boxed Cragstan Monkey & Seal Windup - Worldwide Shipping1930's Marx Tin Wind Up Toy-pinches-traffic Cop On Motorcycle For RepairVintage Mettoy Windup Clown Rider Motorcycle Tin Toy1940s Wind Up Tin & Celluloid Donald Duck Race Car Toy Post Wwii Occupied Japan Antique (1939) Tin Litho Pinoccio Toy - Mar (marx) - For Walt DisneyVintage Schuco Radio 4012 Windup Car #31$ Scarce Paya Tin Penny Toy Fire Ladder Engine Truck Meier