Antique Toy Fire Trucks and Collecting Fire Fighting Toys

The gradual development during the 19th century of the modern day fire department was reflected in toys modeled after the trucks and vehicles used by the early volunteer fire fighting companies. Like the full-size versions, the first miniatures were rather crude. Fallow's made a toy fire truck pumper of stenciled tinplate that was little more than two barrels joined at right angles -- extremely simple and crude. Early fire fighting toys by Brown and Ives were equally primitive. However, in the 1880s more sophisticated cast-iron fire-fighting trucks and equipment appeared. Ives offered a matching set of 5 cast-iron fire vehicles -- pumper, hose carriage, hook and ladder truck, fire patrol, and chief's wagon. Other major producers of fire-fighting toys were Carpenter, Hubley, and Pratt & Letchworth. Horse-drawn fire-fighting toys continued to be made well after 1900, although by then most communities had converted to collectible automotive vehicles. 

The most diversified of antique toy fire trucks come from a line of cast iron toys vehicles. Thousands of types by dozens of makers exist, yet these were the last cast iron playthings to appear on the market. They called "fire wagons", the antique quality cast-iron versions ceased being manufactured in the early 1900s.

Also common were such highly specialized vehicles as antique fire engines and police cars, trolleys, motorcycles, racing cars, and even collectible sprinkler trucks for the city streets.

The pumper was advertised as Fire Engine, Three Horses in a Hubley catalogue of 1922, when full-size pumpers were drawn by motor vehicles instead of horses. Hubley and other toy makers also produced toys that combined a conventional 19th-century-style fire truck pumper or other piece of fire-fighting equipment with a truck body, an amalgam that resembled vehicles actually used by fire fighters of the then modern day. These are still highly prized vintage collectibles today. 

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the fire patrol wagon transported members of the company and equipment like buckets to the scene of a fire. At other times, when no emergency threatened, it carried firemen on rounds, enforcing fire laws in their district. 


Whether a collectible toy is what it is purported to be is a constant question in the field of collecting. Some very popular objects, such as cast-iron vehicles -- especially fire engines and trucks -- have been reproduced for many years, and an increasing number of toys restored with reproduction parts. 

Some of the More Famous Makers of Collectible Fire Trucks and Toys

Dent Hardware Co. -- Henry H. Dent formed the Company in 1895, and produced his first cast-iron toys in 1898. The firm first made horse-drawn fire wagons (fire trucks to you and me), then follow up with many versions of other vehicles. During the 1900s, Dent's die-cast toys gradually replaced those of cast iron. 

Hubley Company -- Founded by John Hubley in about 1894 made cast iron toys. Its earliest products were trains and trolleys powered by live steam, electricity, or spring mechanisms, but he later also added horse-drawn fire trucks and wagons before the 1920s. By 1940 Hubley had become the world's largest manufacturer of cast-iron toys. Hubley also switched to die-cast toys of a zinc alloy due to increasing freight charges and foreign competition.

Kenton Lock Manufacturing Co. -- In 1894 became Kenton Hardware and began producing cast-iron toys. The firm was well known for its horse-drawn vehicles, fire engines, nodding toys, and comic strip characters. Kenton used the trade name "Kentontoys", so look for that. 

Dating Collectible Toy Fire Trucks:

As we have stated before, we repeat this information often on our toy pages because of it's extreme value in dating small toys: If you have the boxes your collectible toy fire trucks came in, you can use bar code and ZIP Codes. Here is how: 5 digit ZIP codes were first implemented by the US Post Office in 1963. In 1983 the Post Office implemented ZIP + 4. So if your collectible toy fire trucks have a ZIP code of 5 digits, it dates between 1963 and 1983. If it has a 5 digit code followed by a 4 digit code, it dates from 1983 or later. 

New abbreviations for states became prominent around 1963. Between 1943 and 1963, the largest U.S. cities used "postal zones." These postal zones can date major centers, such as Houston, as being in that twenty year period (1943 to 1963). If your collectible toy fire trucks have a postal zone number following the state in the address, it dates between 1943 and 1963. 

If your collectible toy fire trucks have boxes, the bar code method of pricing began use in mass commercial applications around 1975. So if your collectible toy fire trucks boxes have bar codes on them, figure a date after 1974 and most likely after 1981. 

If your collectible toy fire trucks were made in Japan or China here is some more information: Collectible Toy Fire Trucks marked "Made in Occupied Japan" date from the U.S. Army's years of occupation after World War II, being 1945 - 1952. More rare are collectible toy fire trucks marked "made in Nippon". These was made in Japan between 1891 and 1921. If marked "made in Japan" it's after 1921. 

Toys marked "Made in China" or "Made in the Peoples Republic of China" most commonly date after the U.S. and China Trade Agreement of 1979. 

Also learn as much as you can about the materials common to collectible toy fire trucks. For example, if you are considering metal toys, know the history of "tin plate". We have a lot more about tinplate on some of our other toy pages.

A Small Bit of History on Antique Tinplate Toys from Japan and Germany.

Tin plate, mostly used for oil cans around 1874-1875, was originally used in the making of toys by Germany - Japan's entry came shortly after. Eventually Japan became the tin plate toy-producing center of the world, leaving behind Germany which was totally devastated by the First World War.

In 1948, friction toys, shaped of trains, fire engine trucks and automobiles emerged. And around 1955, electronic toys took over them. Eight years later, 60% of the exported toys in Japan were made out of tin plate.

By 1970 tin plate toys had gradually disappeared as plastic and advanced metal alloy toys emerged.

The United States also has a long history of tin toy manufactures dating back to 1850, when there were already 50 toy makers in the U.S. The bulk of this group operated in the Northeastern part of the country. The Northeast has such a rich tradition of toy makers, because of the immigration of so many toy makers coming through New York on their way to America. 

During the World War I embargo of German toys, American companies began producing a large variety of tin plate wind-up toys. An interesting fact is wind-up tin toys have a history of being inexpensive during certain periods of time. This was a fact for American ones made during the Great Depression of the 1930’s. A desperate time for many American people. Tin toys during those difficult times were a very inexpensive toy, which in return made them a popular gift of that period. This also may account for the still ready supply of these toy in the marketplace. In the U.S. the tinplate manufacturer of toys thrived well into the late 1950's.

Other Sources of Information of Antique & Collectible Fire Trucks...

Fire Truck Petal Toys is not actually about antique or collectible toys, but if you can imagine miniature versions of the fire fighting equipment in their virtual museum, you can easily see where the impetus for toys originated. Fire Fighting Museum is not and American museum, but it's easy to see the similarities between all antique fire trucks and equipment.