When Was -
The Tin Toy Created?

By Mike McLeod
Posted June 2007 

Most toy historians and collectors usually date tin toys to the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. However, discoveries along the banks of the Thames River in London a few years ago push that date back to sometime during the Middle Ages. The Mudlarks, a society of metal detectors who are legally authorized to search along the Thames, began finding small metal toys dating to as early as the 1200s. Most of these toys were made of pewter, but an ornate miniature chair made of tin was discovered. The chair actually resembled a low cabinet or dresser with two mesh doors on the lower front and arching rods or poles on the back corners. For a toy, it was highly intricate and of delicate workmanship for tin.

As a side note, the variety of toys found were in the shapes of miniature cannon, guns, jugs, frying pans (with metal fish in them), figures, stools and household items. They now reside in the Museum of London. This discovery has cast doubt on a popular historical belief. Until recently, many historians believed that kids during the Middle Ages in Europe had no childhood and that parents had little affection for their children because families were large, and many kids died young because of hunger, malnutrition and disease. In addition, children were often put to work as early as six years old. For these reasons, it was believed kids rarely played.

This discovery seems to prove that the learned folk were somewhat mistaken.
It is true that tin toys were first mass produced during the Industrial Revolution when machines for stamping out tin patterns were invented. Germany led the way with companies like Marklin in 1859, Bing in 1863, Fleischman in 1887, Lehmann in 1881 and Gunthermann in 1880 creating penny playthings for kids. More companies jumped on board in the early 1900s until the beginning of World War I, which almost completely halted German production. Other countries like the United States, Japan and England entered the market on a grand scale at this time. At one point, the U.S. had up to 50 manufacturers creating tin toys.

Germany rebounded after WWI, only to be knocked down again by WWII. Both Germany and Japan came back into production after WWII and imprinted toys with "Made in US Zone" and "Occupied Japan" (respectively) through the 1950s.

Until about 1875, tin toys were hand painted, if they were painted at all. Then with the invention of the color printing process of lithography, mass produced toys were also mass painted. This printing process can be a helpful key in dating tin toys. Prior to the 1960s, the lithographic process printed each of the four colors one plate at a time. This yielded an irregular dot print pattern. After 1960, the newer process created a regular dot pattern.

Today, older tin toys are a favorite collectible. On eBay recently, Morphy Auctions sold a 1908 tin windup M&K (Muller & Kadeder of Nuremburg, Germany) motorcycle with sidecar and a woman passenger for $6,000. Of course, most tin toys sell for less than a hundred dollars, but the older German toys can be pricey.

Popular designs include boats, cartoon characters, cars, animals, Disney, and the circus, but even Star Wars has gotten into the act. Osaka Tin Toy Institute created several limited edition characters in tin (R2-D2, C3PO, Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and a storm trooper) in 1997 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the original movie. The company is now out of business, so these pieces are much sought after.

But don't confuse those tin figures with the set Hasbro is currently selling of Star Wars Episode IV figures (Darth Vader, Princess Leia, C3PO and a storm trooper) for $32.99.

Tin toys are marvels and marvelous, and from the beginning (whether in the 1200s or the 1800s), kids loved them. Today, they've lost a little of their shine, but at least adults still love and appreciate them.

1929 Louis Marx Joy Rider wind-up, 8 in. long, $140.
Wording on car says: ''O-Ma the dent maker," "Gimme room," "Vacuum Lizzie," etc. (Photo, courtesy www.artfact.com.)

This 1908 M&K motorcycle
and sidecar was sold for $6,000 on eBay by Morphy Auctions. (Photo, courtesy Morphy Auctions.)






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