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 Schuco Studio 1050 Mercedes Tin Wind-up Toy Race Car, NrVintage Antique Tin Wind Up Toonerville Trolley By Fontaine FoxVintage 1930s Louis Marx G Man Pursuit Car Wind Up Tin Toy Rare Works!1952 Super Rare!! Marx No,423 Dual Horse & Cart Tin Litho Wind Up Toy W/box 11" Parading Monkey Drummer Mechanical Wind-up Tin Toy Distler Germany 1928Western Germany Wind Up Tin Car Stops, Driver Comes Out, Drive Away Orig. BoxSuper Nice 1940's "louis Marx Toys" Popeye The Pilot Wind-up Tin/litho Plane!Vintage Marx Coke/coal Dump Truck Windup Tin ToyVintage 1950's Yonezawa Tin Race Car Electro Special Toy Racer #21 Red Rare !Vintage Original Line Mar Disney Wind Up Tin Mickey Mouse Roller Skating Toy1950's Roller Coaster By J Chein Tin Wind Up Complete With 2 Cars Working Clean+1930's Lindstrom Crying Boy Tin Litho Wind Up Toy 4 1/2" High Hard To Find No ReOld Tin Marx Tractor/crawler *vintage Wind-up Construction Dozer Farm ToyMarx Vintage Race Car #12 Tin Antique Toy 16.5" Long Santee Claus Tin Toy By Strauss. No Reserve!Marx Antique Tin Toy Windup Airplane Layout Christmas Display 1932 Popeye Bag Puncher - Very Good To Excellent - Merry Christmas!Black Americana Tin Toy Wind Up Clockwork Jazzbo Jim Strauss Jig Dancer C1921Popeye Skating - 1956 - Near Mint/mint - Beautiful - Merry Christmas1951 Louis Marx Old Jalopy Tin Lithographed Wind Up Toy Car With Driver 7' LargePopeye And Olive Oyl Stretchy Hand Car - Rare - Near Mint Plus+++++Strauss Wind Up Vintage Coon Jigger1952 Ohio Art Injun Crawling Chief Tin Litho Wind Up Toy With Orig. Box 8" LargeVintage Tin Wind Up Toy Horse With Rider # 5 Us Zone Germany Works L@@kRare Lionel Trains No. 1107 Walt Disney Donald Duck Rail Car Toy In Origial Box1939 Uncle Wiggillys Crazy Car Wind Up Toy Toonerville Trolley Windup Toy - 1922 Fontaine FoxArnold Boby Monkey On Tricycle1940's Wyandotte Joe Palooka Humphrey Mobile Tin Windup Motorcycle Toy Very Nice1930's G-man Sparkling Machine Gun By Marx Usa Tin Wind Up Super Clean & WorkingVintage Marx Tin Wind Up Jolly Joe Crazy Car L@@kVintage Panzer Tank Mechanical Windup Tin Litho Toy Machine Gun Armored Vehicle1940's Gi Joe & His Jouncing Jeep By Unique Art Usa Tin Wind Up, Clean & WorkingVintage Wind Up Tin Litho Toy Battleship Moon Star Trademark Tin Toy Ship Japan?1950s Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Motor Woody Station Wagon Toy Car50's Rare T.p.s. Japan Circus Clown Playing Xylophone Tin Litho Wind Up Toy 5" 1950's Japan Ko Police Dept 3 Wheel Motorcycle & Driver Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Masudaya Japan Expert Tom Tin Motorcyclist Toy Wit BoxMr Machine Wind Up Toy # 4844-2 1960 With Original Box2- Wind Up Tin Toy Race Cars..marx? Flat Head Ford Motor.. Black Cat 9.. No Res.Rare Vintage 50s ? Wind Up Tin Toy Metal Boat & Trailer Japan 9 1/2" WorkingSuper Rare Alps Japan 1950's Santa Claus With Belll Wind Up Tin Toy Works In BoxVintage Technofix Tin-carousels Tower With Aeroplanes Tin Wind-up Toy RareVintage Mechanical Walking Robot Space Windup Tin Litho Toy Yoneya Japan1940's Humphrey Mobile Tin Wind Up Comic Car Wyandotte, Joe Palooka Comics Exlnt#51 Vintage 1930's J.chein Co. Tin Wind Up, Hercules Ferris Wheel,toy Usa, TurnsVintage 1940s Marx Jumpin' Military Jeep Tin Wind Up Toy Works GreatFamous Schuco Clown Collectable Toy, Rare1940s Chein Metal Wind Up Roller Coaster With 2 Original Cars1950s Vintage Wind Up Skiing Bear Fully Functional Made In Japan By "y"Linemar Co. Windup Popeye Toy1950's Calypso Joe Tps Japan Tin Wind Up W Box, Working Black Americana, NativeVintage Linemar 1960s Fred Flinstone & Dino Tin Windup Toy(works!)Marx Wind Up Race Car - Vintage 1930's Toy Tin Litho Racer 1930s Tin/celluloid W/u Mary & Little Lamb-rare-japan-worksVintage Tin Wind Up Indian Chief Riding Bucking Horse Kohler Us Zone GermanyVintage Schuco Rollyvox 1080 Original Near Mint In Box W Germany Toy CarAntique Tin/metal Wind-up Toy Police CarToy Climbing Fireman Vintage Antique Wind-upLouis Marx Tin U. S. Air Force Mobile Radar Toy Truck