In the late 19th century, lightweight tinplate toys from Europe, particularly Germany, dominated the U.S. market. American manufacturers responded with heavy cast iron. Large deposits of iron ore around the Great Lakes ensured a plentiful, local supply—indeed, factories and foundries in the Northeastern United States had long been manufacturing cast iron household items, farm tools, and military equipment. Cast iron toys quickly caught on. They were more durable and affordable than tin, and as the automobile became an essential part of American society in the early 20th century, more and more children wanted toy versions of these fascinating new machines.

The iron-casting process began with an original model carved from wood, which was then used to create an impression in a hardened compound of sand and glue. After the sand molds were filled with molten iron and had cooled, they were broken open to reveal the finished cast pieces. The typical cast iron toy was composed of numerous pieces, which were then assembled and painted, often by hand. Because iron tended to rust when exposed to the elements, these toys were commonly nickel-plated to promote longevity. Finished cast iron model cars usually had a few simple moving parts, such as rolling wheels or hinged doors, but later models incorporated realistic features like rubber tires or working lights into their designs.

One of the earliest cast iron toy manufacturers was the Wilkins Toy Company, which was established in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1890. Initially it produced cast iron promotional toys advertising sewing machines and clothes wringers made by the Triumph Wringer Company. Four years later, the company was purchased by 25-year-old Harry Kingsbury, owner of a local bicycle shop. Kingsbury's inventive personality pushed the company in creative new directions—he released the first toy horseless carriage in 1900. Kingsbury's impact on the company was long-standing; his ingenious 1902 design for a clock-spring motor was used until the company stopped making toys in 1942.

The Hubley Manufacturing Company was founded in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1894, and originally concentrated on model trains. However, Hubley quickly dominated the cast iron toy market by taking advantage of the new five-and-dime stores proliferating across the United States. Hubley struck a number of clever promotional deals to link toys to celebrities. For example, the Lindy Gliders were a series of planes replicating Charles Lindbergh’s famous flying machines. The company also partnered with many popular brands to produce everything from miniature Bell Telephone and Borden Ice Cream trucks to Harley Davidson and Indian toy motorcycles.

During the Great Depression, Hubley offered cast iron model cars in multiple sizes, with prices to match. The smallest vehicles generally cost no more than a quarter, while a 13-inch model truck might run as high as $2.25, a hefty sum for a child’s toy in the 1930s.

By 1940, Hubley had become the largest manufacturer of cast iron cars in the world, but with the start of World War II, toy fabrication ceased. Although Hubley continued making toys after the war, they transitioned to diecast techniques and never resumed cast iron production. The most collectible Hubley vehicles today are highly decorative novelty cars like the Bandwagon, which included a team of four white horses, eight musicians, and a driver.

A worthy competitor of Hubley was Arcade Manufacturing, which was founded in 1855 but didn’t begin casting toys until 1908. Arcade released the first Yellow Taxi Cab model car in...

“Perfect pocket size reproductions of the ‘real ones’ – sturdily built” was the familiar Arcade tagline. Accordingly, for the 1933 Chicago Exposition, Arcade was contracted to make official models of the Greyhound buses that transported visitors around the fair. These were an instant success and are highly sought by vintage cast iron car collectors today.

The Kenton Lock Manufacturing Company, founded in 1890, ventured into the cast iron toy market under the management of Lewis Bixler in 1909. Kenton’s extensive selection of construction vehicles and farm equipment were unrivaled; around 5,000 different models were made during the company’s lifetime. Kenton helped establish The Toy Manufacturers of the U.S.A., an industry trade group dedicated to promoting domestic products and preventing imported goods from dominating the market.

The Dent Hardware Company of Fullerton, Pennsylvania, also got its start producing household goods and machinery parts until it became more famous for its toys. One of Dent’s most popular releases was the Fresh Air Taxi, a bright orange open-top cab, complete with Amos 'n Andy cartoon characters, as well as their dog, riding shotgun.

During the Great Depression, sales of the National Sewing Machine Company’s namesake appliance plummeted, so the firm diversified with product lines that were more affordable and easier to manufacture. Among these were a line of cast iron toys under the brand name Vindex.

Vindex toys exhibited great craftsmanship, typically using a thinner layer of casting material to allow for more realistic details. The company's John Deere and Case brand farm vehicles and tractors, produced in partnership with "Farm Mechanics" magazine, are particularly desirable today. Children would receive these toy vehicles as incentives for selling a certain number of magazine subscriptions; higher level sales were rewarded with rarer toys.

An increase in union wages finished off National’s Vindex toy line in 1938, but it was really World War II that killed the cast iron toy industry. The war effort monopolized factory output across the United States, so toy manufacturing was effectively halted until peacetime resumed. The gap in production allowed newer, cheaper technologies such as pressed steel, diecast zinc, and plastic to proliferate. By the war's end, cast iron’s golden era was over.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

DFW Elite Toy Museum

DFW Elite Toy Museum

Ron Sturgeon's excellent gallery of fancy model cars and other vehicles. Nice high resolution shots with classy mus… [read review or visit site]

The Show Room

The Show Room

This gallery at Dave's Show Rod Rally features model show rods from 1960 to 2001. Favorites include the 1958 Thunde… [read review or visit site]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Hubley "lindy" Cast Iron Airplane - Large Size Rare Blue No Reserve (dakotapaul)1920s Cast Iron Ford Model-t Four Door Sedan / Automobile Toy By Arcade Car1920s Cast Iron Yellow Cab Automobile / Taxicab Toy By Freidag Manufacturing Co.C.1930 Hubley Cast Iron Nucar Transport With Trailer & CarCa1900 Cast Iron Horse Drawn Fire Engine / Truck Ladder Wagon Toy By Kenton1920s Cast Iron Ford Model-t Two Door Sedan / Automobile Toy By Arcade CarVintage Hubley Red Bell Telephone Service Truck #2011 Cast Iron Ca. 1930sVintage Hubley Cast Iron Harley Davidson Police Patrol Motorcycle Olive GreenCast Iron Hubley Crash Car Motorcycle 7" ExcVintage Prewar Arcade Cast Iron City Ambulance Toy Car1910s Cast Iron Race Car / Boat Tail Racer Toy By A. C. Williams 5.25 InchesCast Iron Arcade Truck 261 TowA.c. Williams Cast Iron Tow Wrecker Truck 7" No Reserve (dakotapaul)A.c. Williams Cast Iron Red & Green Dump Lg. 7" Size No Reserve (dakotapaul)1910s Cast Iron Transition Fire Engine / Pumper Truck By Kenton Hardware CompanyVintage Cast Iron Farmall Tractor, With Driver, Toy Farm All Arcade Usa Antique1920's Cast Iron Racer / Boat Tail Race Car Toy By Hubley In Original PaintOriginal **1930's Hubley Cast Iron Crash Car Motorcycle Iron Wheels1920s Cast Iron Horse Drawn Royal Circus Wagon Tiger Cage Toy By Hubley Mfg CoArcade Cast Iron International Dump Truck Vintage 10 Inches Long 236 W/ DriverHubley Champion Cast Iron Motorcycle Big 7" With Rubber Wheels 1930's Very Nice 1930's Hubley #2137 8 Cast Iron Blue Race Car & DriverAntique 1920s Cast Iron Motorcycle W/ Sidecarhubley? Arcade? A.c. Williams?1920s Cast Iron Bullet Race Car Number 7 / Racer Toy By Hubley Manufacturing Co1930's Kilgore Cast Iron Nickel Grill Stake TruckHubley Cast Iron 6-wheel Take-apart Stake Truck Wrt No Reserve (dakotapaul)Cast Iron Toy Bus - Arcade1910s Cast Iron Transition Fire Engine / Pumper Truck By Jones And BixlerVintage Arcade Cast Iron Mccormick-deering Threshing Machine Farm Toy 1930'sVintage Antique Toy Car Bus Cast Iron Original Lot (2) Arcade Kenton Hubley? NrArcade Cast Iron Oliver Toy Tractor Plow Hay Rake Disc Harrow Mower Implements C.1930s Arcade Toys Cast Iron Fire Truck Good TiresCast Iron Toy Car - HubleyFageol Bus Cast Iron Toy Arcade1920s Cast Iron Ragtop Roadster With Rumble Seat Toy Automobile / Car By HubleyHubley Original Cast Iron Patrol Motorcycle Rider Harley1920s Cast Iron Mack C Cab Gasoline Tanker Truck Toy By Champion Hardware Arcade Mack Dump Truck 12 1/4'' Long Cast Iron TruckStructo Vintage Pressed Steel Auto Haulaway No.175 Truck W/ 4 Cars (dakotapaul)Cast Iron Toy Truck - Hubley1920s Arcade Cast Iron Coupe Car All Original Rare In Auction Setting!Vintage Hubley Cast Iron Police Patrol Motorcycle Made In U.s.a.Vintage Thomas Toys Cast Iron Yellow Can CarC.1930s Arcade Toys Cast Iron Fire Truck White TiresAntique 1930's Cast Iron Overland Circus Wagon Toy Replacement Polar Bear FigureMarx? Dump Truck Vintage Pressed Steel 10 Inches Long Contracters & Builders1930s Hubley Cast Iron Small Harley Style Motorcycle Removable Rider Version @@All Original Hubley "huber" Cast Iron Road Roller - Nice No Reserve (dakotapaul)Original 1930's Champion 7 Inch Cast Iron MotorcycleSpeedboat Cast Iron Toy Original Rare Ac Williams Hubley Speed BoatLarge Antique Iron Horses For Pull Wagon Dent Or Wilkins C. 1900Cast Iron Toy Bus - Arcade Arcade Mack Custom Box Truck, Vtg Cast Iron Horse Drawn Beer Wagon Dog 2 Drivers 8 Clydesdales 28 Beer BarrelsVtg.a.c. Williams? Cast Iron Blue Motorcycle & Auburn Police CycleCast Iron Toy Ford TractorCast Iron Hubley Toy Race Car Racer Racing Car With Flaming Pistons Out Of TopCa1900 Cast Iron Horse Drawn Carriage With Silhouette Driver Toy By KentonAntique Hubley Cast Iron Toy Tow Wrecker Truck Open Air #1952 Vintage 1930's Hubley Cast Iron Red / Silver 4 1/2" Dump Truck #2308