A History in American Mechanical Toys

The desire to bring inanimate forms to life is apparently basic to man-kind. As far back as ancient times, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman craftsmen managed to animate wooden statues through the use of hidden levers and hydraulic or pneumatic power, with seemingly magical results. Much later, town clocks in 16th century Germany had mechanical clockwork driven figures that struck the hour. These were the precursors of automata -- life-size forms that were made for royalty in the 17th and 18th centuries. The elaborate clockwork gearing of automata enabled them to perform many amazing tasks-from writing sentences to playing musical instruments. However, by the 1850s automata were being replaced by mass-produced mechanical toys that had spring-driven mechanisms and light, stamped gears instead of the heavy brass ones. Because they were inexpensive, these toys soon became hugely popular in Europe and America and remained so for a century.

American Clockwork Toys

By the mid-19th century, an important clock-making center developed in the Connecticut River Valley and toy-makers applied the technological advances achieved by clock manufacturers to the production of animated mechanical toys. The first American clockwork toy is credited to the area of Jorestville, Connecticut, around 1900. Brown and his partner were clock-makers and the firm utilized clockwork mechanisms for the various tinplate toys they produced. The first American patented clockwork toy was created by Enoch Rice in 1862. 

The Ives Company became the leading manufacturer of clockwork toys, creating dozens of different tinplate toys including ships, horses, carriages, humans, and animals. Costing from $2.50 to $4.50, these were made for the children of rather well-off families. 

Spring Driven Toys

Toward the end of the 19th century, European makers of spring-driven and friction toys were successfully marketing their toys in the United States. Their toys were so inexpensive that they were underselling American clockwork toy makers who were producing this type of toy. Realizing the potential, however, American firms began to market these mechanical spring-driven toys as quickly as possible. One of the first American makers (prior to 1900) was Sehlesinger. After 1900 both domestic and European spring-driven toys were widely available in the U.S. Strauss Company began making spring-driven tinplate toys around 1908, and the Marx Toy Company a few years later. Marx eventually became the leading maker of these mechanical windup toys with colorful lithographed patterns and displays. Thanks to "plastics" (boo) most mechanical toys gradually died out after World War II.

Machines and Instruments

America's fascination with machines prompted many 19th-century toy makers to design toys with functioning mechanical parts. These ranged from miniature musical instruments that actually played to live steam engines and ordinary household appliances, such as operating toy washing machines and toy vacuum cleaners. 

Musical Toys -- The earliest musical toys were ceramic or carved wooden whistles, often bird-shaped, made in Europe in the 18th century. Similar ceramic whistles were created in America a century later. At the turn of the century, American firms mass produced huge numbers of musical toys. For example, Converse and Noble & Coaly turned out tinplate and wooden drums, and Schlesinger made lithographed tinplate horns called fish horns about 1903. Somewhat earlier than this, Schoenhut built his highly regarded wooden toy pianos. Other American firms made xylophones, trumpets, and penny whistles. 

Steam Toys -- The development of the steam engine revolutionized industry and modes of transportation and led to a proliferation of steam toys -- mostly miniature live steam engines and accessories that could be belted to the engines. Some of the world's leading manufacturers of these toys were Weeden and Bing. 

Mechanical Railway Handcars

The main source of fascination with these toys is the action -- which should be in working order if it is to be a serious collectible. The toy's exterior condition is a lesser factor in determining desirability. As relics of industrial history, railway toys are coveted not only by toy collectors but also by train and railway buffs. Flat wheels indicate that the toy was meant to be used on the floor; similarly, toy trains with flanged wheels were designed to be used on tracks. If you find these types of toys, the flat wheeled ones are most likely the oldest and most valuable.