So You've Decided on Collecting Antique Toys?

The good news is: Your interest in antique toys is unlike many other forms of collecting antiques -- it can be reasonably inexpensive! However, there are several ways for the collector of antique toys to gain confidence and minimize costly mistakes. Most importantly, get informed! Learn everything you can about antique and collectible toys from library books, price guides, trade magazines and museums. Get to know the particular periods, materials and styles that pertain to antique toys or vintage toys.

Forget about the antique and vintage labels -- it's all about rarity and condition! So, don't expect a "plastic" toy to be of any real value. Toys made of materials no longer used will always be the more valuable ones.

Look for dealers who are established in your community and have some of the best examples of antique toys, vintage toys, old toys and collectible toys. Join an antiques club, talk to members and ask your fellow members for advice. If you are really lucky, the club will have a member with a collection that you can browse.

The WHOLE Story and History of Antique Toys...

The most entertaining of all antiques, toys constitute one of the fastest growing fields of collecting. They appeal to people of all ages: For children, of course, toys give countless hours of amusement, and for adults, too, they provide delights, not only because playthings are poignant reminders of youth, but also because they convey fascinating glimpses into the values, styles, and technology of earlier eras. 

Toys have captivated Americans for more than a century-from 19th-century rocking horses and early 20th-century touring cars to rockets of the 1960s. Also included are European toys that were frequently exported to America.

Toy collecting is a relatively new field, and only in the past twenty years has it attracted large numbers of collectors and inspired specialized auctions, collectors, clubs. and scholarly research. The first toys collected in the United States were banks and trains. In the 1930s some bankers began to acquire a variety of cast-iron mechanical banks and still banks, primarily for commercial display. Toy trains began to interest collectors in the 1950s, and, even today, antique train collecting is one of the most popular specialties. 

Prior to 1850 most toys were one-of-a-kind pieces, with the exception of wooden examples produced in vast quantities by the German cottage industry. Today's toy collectors are most interested in mass-produced toys made during the mid-19th century; however, toys manufactured in the 1960s and '70s are also being collected as investments. 

A Simple Way to Identify Antique Toys  

Toys are incredibly varied, ranging from simple building blocks and lead soldiers to elaborate tinplate locomotives with clockwork motors and mechanical banks with moving figures. To help collectors understand this vast array, there are books available (some in your local library) that organize toys by type, materials, manufacturers and other organizational classes. This is by far the best way to get started.

Games and Paper Toys

Inexpensive to produce and easy to transport, paper toys and board games have long been a sideline for printers in Europe and, later, in the United States. They can be traced an the way back to ancient Chinese shadow puppets, figures manipulated before a light to cast shadows. These were the fore-bearers of the cardboard dancing puppets with movable limbs that were popular in France in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Paper kites and playing cards also originated in  the Orient and were introduced to Europe in the 15th century. 

The first card games were made for gambling, but by the 18th century some had religious or educational themes, ranging in subject from literature and grammar to geography and botany. It was not until the mid-19th century that the purpose of cards like that of board game, shifted fully to the pursuit of pleasure and amusement. While the earliest cards were drawn and colored by hand, by the 1600s they were stenciled and engraved, creating products that were more uniform and less expensive. Color lithography, introduced in the late 19th century, led to the production of cards on a vast scale. 

Although board games date back to antiquity, the earliest known European example called Goose was played in 16th-century Italy. In 1759 Carrington Bowles of London produced Journey through Europe or the Play of Geography, one of the first educational board games. Prior to the American Revolution, most printed games played in the Colonies were imported from England. One of the first games published in America was the Lottery of the Pious or the Spiritual Treasure Casket printed by Christopher Sower of Gerrnantown, Pennsylvania, in 1744. The  first American publisher to produce antique games in quantity was W. & S. B. Ives, who issued the now well-known game Dr. Busby around the 1850s. 

Early Tinplate Toys

The material tinplate consists of thin sheets of steel covered with tin. It has been used in Europe since the late 18th century to make kitchenware and small metal objects, including some toys. As far back as the 1820's, a few tinsmiths made simple antique tinplate toys such as bubble pipes and whistles along with such household objects as buckets, spoons, and plates. But until the tin ore mines were opened in Galena, Illinois, in the 1840s, most American tin had to be imported, making all tinplate products fairly expensive. Once local tin ore became available, American manufacturers gradually began to apply European innovations, such as the mechanical press for stamping metal into kitchenware and, subsequently, collectible toys. 

Tinplate was ideal for toy making. Not only was it lightweight, but it could be easily shaped by machines, which cut it into forms and bent these pieces. They were then soldered together or, after 1880, fastened together with tabs and slots stamped directly onto the tinplate pieces. 

One of the earliest tin shops was the Philadelphia Tin Toy Manufactory founded in the 1850s as a subsidiary of Francis, Field & Francis, which had been established in 1838 to make tinplate kitchenware. One of the most innovative shops was founded in 1856 by George W. Brown, a designer whose sketchbook, discovered a few years ago, has provided valuable information about early American tinplate toys. He and his. partner, Chauncey Goodrich, adapted clockwork motors made by Connecticut clock-making firms to create some of the first mechanical toys in America. Brown continued to produce toys into the late 1870s, competing with such growing new firms as Altha, Bergman, established in 1867, James Fallows, who began his operation in 1874, and Leo Schlesinger, who started his shop in 1875. These firms produced stationary, pull toys, and clockwork tinplate toys, all of which were painted by hand. Because tinplate toys were lightweight and hollow, they were well suited for mechanization. 

In 1868 Edward Ives opened a shop in Plymouth, Connecticut, moving to Bridgeport two years later. An innovator and an astute businessman, Ives bought out a number of small firms. He produced new kinds of toy vehicles and trains, many of which bad clockwork motors that could run for up to half an hour; most of these clockwork mechanisms were made by local clock factories, including the New Haven Clock Company.

Late Tinplate Toys

During the 1880s European toy makers began to manufacture inexpensive spring-driven tinplate toys on a vast scale, capturing a major share of the American market. Their products were charming and much less expensive than American tinplate clockwork toys because they used stamped tinplate gears rather than heavy brass gears. European toy making was almost completely mechanized. From humming tops, trains, and trolleys to mechanical animals on wheels and figures pulling carts (pull toys), tinplate toys were made in amazing variety. By 1900 one-third of all tinplate toys made in Germany were sold in the United States. Some of the most prominent antique tinplate toy-makers were the German firms Lehmann, Marklin, and Bing, and the French company Fernand Martin. Lehmann sold ninety percent of its toys overseas. Some of Martin's toys were exported, but most were sold in France by street peddlers or in variety stores. Many German toys mass-produced after 1890 bear patent and copyright marks such as the initials "O.R.G.M.," an abbreviation for Deutsches Reichs Gebrauchmuster.

Recognizing the great potential of this expanding market. American firms also began to produce large quantities of spring-driven tinplate toys in the early 20th century, sacrificing quality for low-cost production. Among the major companies were those of Julius Chein, active beginning in 1903, Strauss, established in 1914, and Louis Marx, who in the 1920s and '30s produced a variety of fine windup toys, many of which depicted radio or movie celebrities or cartoon characters. 

During World War II, the production of tinplate toys was discontinued because of the scarcity of raw materials, After the war, large numbers of these toys were produced by Japanese, Korean, and even Chinese firms. However, in the 1970s production of most tinplate toys ceased, when the material was replaced by plastic. 

Cast Iron Toys

American manufacturers excelled in making cast-iron toys! Because it was cast in molds, iron could be used to produce thousands of identical objects at modest costs. This was particularly appealing to American toy makers during the second half of the 19th century, because increased prosperity had produced a growing market as well as higher labor costs. European makers had been using iron for wheels and other components of tinplate or wooden toys since the 18th century, but with the exception of some English banks, they never fully exploited the advantages of this material. Americans, however, were quick to see its virtues. 

Cast Iron Banks and Horse Drawn Vehicles

Most cast-iron toys appeared relatively late on the American scene. The industry got into high gear only after the Civil War, fueled in part by the discovery of vast iron ore reserves. 

Cast-iron toys fall into several categories including banks, cannons, vehicles, and miscellaneous objects such as miniature tools and dollhouse furniture. By far the most important cast-iron toys to collectors are the antique banks and antique toy cars, trucks and other vehicles. 

Banks were of two types: still banks, which were similar to the repositories for coins that had existed for centuries, and toy mechanical banks, ingenious devices in which the deposit of a coin produced some action, such as a mule kicking or the likes. Still banks appeared in the late 1860s, while the first still banks were often made of tinplate or other materials, cast iron was employed for all but the latest mechanical ones. Among the major American producers were Strauss, Sheppard and Hubley. With the exception of reproductions, practically no cast iron mechanical banks have been made since the 1920s. Cast-iron "still banks" are still produced, but they usually lack the charm of early antique toy pieces. 

The most diversified cast iron toys are the vehicles. Thousands of types by dozens of makers exist, yet these were the last cast iron playthings to appear on the market. Ives, Blakeslee & Williams offered walking horses, horse-drawn fire wagons, carriages, wagons, and sleighs, and also lines of pull and spring-driven floor trains, printing presses, and stoves, all by 1900. Though gradually supplanted by other, cheaper metals, cast iron continued to be used to make toy trains, trucks, cars, planes, and the like until World War II. 

Cast Iron Bell Toys, Cars, Trucks and Soldiers

Most cast-iron vehicles were more or less faithful reproductions of full-size prototypes, though there were also fanciful examples such as the numerous bell toys-animals and various objects mounted on wheels with an attached bell that rang as the toy moved across the floor. Best known of the bell-toy makers was the Gong Bell Manufacturing Company, which probably produced the first example, the Revolving Chimes Bell, in 1873. Like many makers of cast-iron toys, Gong Bell produced toys as a sideline, primarily manufacturing hand, sleigh, and door bells. Another firm, Pratt & Letchworth, one of the large American makers of cast-iron products, also produced toys as an important sideline. 

In their mimicking of full-size vehicles, the makers of antique or collectible cast-iron toys followed the lead of the tinplate toy manufacturers, even to the extent of producing versions of vehicles that were no longer in use. Thus, many turn-of-the-century, cast-iron horse-drawn vehicles have an archaic look that might lead inexperienced collectors to assume they are much older than they are. After 1900 remarkably accurate versions of such popular vehicles as the Model T Ford, Yellow Cab, Cord Supercharger, and Mack Truck appeared. Makers of these accurate examples include Hubley, Arcade, and Dent. 

Antique cars, trucks, and trains constituted the majority of these toys. Airplanes and even dirigibles appeared in the 1920s. There are also a few ships, the most interesting of which are the 19th century steamboats by makers such as Ives. Only a few of these vehicles are powered -- usually by clockwork mechanisms -- since the weight of the iron made such animation impractical. 

When most toy soldiers were made of lead or other alloys, one American firm, Grey Iron of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, did manufacture soldiers made of cast iron. In fact, although this metal had long been used for the various figures associated with cast-iron vehicles, such as drivers, engineers, and passengers,  Grey is thought to have been the world's only producer of military figures in cast iron. In 1917 Grey was granted a patent for forty-millimeter soldiers, termed the Grey Klip Armie, which the firm continued to make until 1941. The first examples were nickel plated, but by 1933 realistically painted ones were available.   

Sheet Steel Toys

While steel has been used for centuries for armor and many weapons, steel production did not thrive in America until about 1850, and was thus a latecomer as an antique toy making material. Steel was first used only for toy parts, usually structural elements. All-steel toys began to be widely produced about 1900, primarily for rideable toys such as bicycles and miniature cars. These were followed by the heavy-gauge steel trucks and and cars made by Buddy Firestone, Dayton Toys and eventually the Tonka Toy Company.

Antique Toy Materials and Mechanisms of the 20th Century

Following World War II, toy production gradually changed. New toys, particularly so-called space toys with plastic parts such as robots and rocket ships, became extremely popular. Most of these have been made in Japan, where electrical and battery-operated playthings have gradually come to replace those animated by spring-driven motors. The growth of television and video games has affected traditional pastimes. On the other hand, the longing of some parents and children for more conventional toys has led to a resurgence of the wooden-toy and stuffed-toy industries. Reproductions of old-time favorites such as the Teddy Bear and Raggedy Ann have competed successfully with the most up-to-date electronic toys. Character toys such as the Smurfs remain popular, as do those based on radio, movie, television, and comic figures. Today's toy industry remains a blend of the revolutionary and the traditional-in many ways changed, but in other ways much the same as it was fifty or a hundred years ago. 

Toy Materials: Cast Iron and Tinplate

Cast iron was a common toy material from the 1870s until World War II. Ideally suited for mass production, the iron was cast in molds that could be used thousands of times. Cast-iron toys were decorated by dipping the pieces in a basic color and then painting the details by hand. Although paint protected most toys against rust, those with movable parts or with parts that were exposed to water or steam often needed additional protection, which was provided by nickel-plating.

Tinplate toys were produced as early as the 1840s by tinsmiths who found this to be a lucrative way to recycle the scraps of tin that remained after a day's work. After 1860 these toys were mass produced. Lightweight and malleable, tinplate was suitable for making a great variety of playthings, including animals, people, and vehicles. Early examples were made from sheets of tinplate that were first painted (or occasionally embossed), and then cut and pressed into shape, trimmed, and soldered together. After 1880 most tinplate toys were decorated with color lithography and then stamped and trimmed.

A Few Recommended Sources for More Antique & Collectible Toy Information...

Mom & Pop Collectible Toys Has a few interesting collectible tinplate toys for sale and a nice antiqued style site to boot.  CollectorsConnection has a wide variety of antique and collectible toys also. Not a beautiful website, but well organized to aid you in your search for product. And need we even mention it... ebay of course... Just be careful at the online auction sites and check out the seller and the item VERY carefully.