Wonderful Wind-up Toys: Wheels, Cogs and Springs Combine to Thrill Children
A German-made Guntherman "Blue Bird" Land Speed Car in good working order. This tin lithographed wind-up car is 20 inches long and features sporty Art Deco detailing. Circa 1930.
In this world of computer technology and artificial intelligence, wind-up toys of the past seem that much more amazing.
For more than a century, the simple idea of a mainspring wound up by lever, key or handle worked to power countless toys produced in Germany, Japan and the United States.
An antique Schuco Clown playing a violin, stands about 4 3/8 inches high and is marked “Schuco Patent” on the side of one foot and “Made In Germany” on the side of his other foot.
During the 19th century, the marriage of toys with the art of automation was a marvel in itself. As early as 1875 that particular technology had been eagerly adopted in America and manufacturers were creating delightful objects.
“The clockwork was wound,” observes William Ayres author of the book “American Toys,” “and as if by magic, hands, legs, and heads move smoothly and naturally and the toys went through their assigned tasks, not jerkily or hastily, but in a smooth natural rhymed”
This combination of wheels, cogs, springs, cams, rods, string, elastic bands and other apparatus were assembled to produce a result that was, according to Ayres, “astoundingly complex in the more complicated pieces and makes one appreciate the ingenuity of the Victorian mind.”
German toy makers led the world at the time in quantity and quality. Their steel spring assembly was far superior to the brass springs used in Japan, but both countries were vastly creative in devising their wind-up designs.
In the early 1900s Ferdinand Strauss, an American toy importer, finally turned his efforts to production and by the end of World War I he had established a major mechanical toy industry in the U.S.
“The production of wind-up toys is so tangled among manufacturers that it is often difficult to determine just who did what,” wrote Richard O’Brian, the author of “The Story of American Toys,” “but among the toys known to have been produced by Strauss are such classic lithographed wind-ups as the Alabama Coon Jigger, Ham and Sam the Minstrel Team, Jazzbo Jim the Dancer on the Roof, and Jackie the Hom Pipe Dancer.”
A Lehmann wind-up "Paak-Paak", circa 1903. This toy was made until 1930.
The bottom of the “Paak-Paak” also reads “Quack-Quack” for export to England.
Strauss advertised the sale of millions of mechanical toys in the early 1920s, but he soon was being pressed by the likes of the Louis Marx Company, which also saw the potential for mass-produced wind-ups.
Marx eventually acquired the dies for some of the Strauss blockbusters, revised them, and also brought out many new ones of his own.
The Sears catalog of 1926 offered a Marx-made wind-up Balky Mule, noting “the mule backs up when he should go forward and rears up on his hind legs so that the poor driver doesn’t know what to do.”
This celluloid cowboy and horse, with its original box, is marked “Trade Mark Modern Toys” and “Made in Japan.” Circa 1940.
It was also during this period that the George Borgfeldt Company of New York made great inroads with its tin wind-up toys under the Nifty brand. Among the Nifty best-sellers of the 1920s were Barney Google Riding Spark-plug and the same comic-strip duo performing on a platform.
Borgfeldt, Marx, Joseph Scheider, Inc. of New York, Schuco of Germany, and many manufacturers in Japan prospered during the Great Depression of the 1930s, in part because of their wonderful windups featuring Disney characters and comic strip figures.
In 1932 the Sears catalog offered the classic wind-up of Popeye and his dodging parrot. While the sailor man pushed his wheelbarrow, the lid of the trunk opened and the famous parrot popped his head in and out from under his hiding place. This action is repeated many times with one winding. The price was 59¢.
Japanese toy makers combined celluloid with the grace of wind-up during the 1930s, and a typical example was a celluloid Donald Duck that did cart wheels in a neat little circle.
Marx countered with treasures like Blondie’s Jalopy, Buck Rogers Rocket Police Patrol Ship, Amos and Andy’s Fresh Air Taxi and Long Ranger Riding Silver, complete with a spinning lariat.
A relatively unknown American company, Unique Art Manufacturing Company of New Jersey scored one of the biggest hits in windups of the 1940s.
A vintage Linemar Toys Japan Walt Disney Productions Mechanical “Pluto the Drum Major” with his original box. Pluto is made of tin and is marked on his back: Linemar Toys Japan Copyright Walt Disney Productions.
Starting with obscure items like the Ho-Bo Train and Gertie the Galloping Goose, the company was able to acquire rights to a major comic strip, and for Christmas 1945 marketed the Li’l Abner Dogpatch Band. It featured Abner dancing a jig, Pappy on drums, Mammy with a drum stick, and Daisy Mae at the piano. It was a smashing success and was kept in production for several years.
Unique also did a Howdy Doody band in later years, and Marx even offered a variation of wind-up piano-playing toys but none achieved the popularity of the Dogpatch Band.
Thanks in part to a well-stored stock of materials, Marx was able to rapidly resume production following World War II, and maintain the high quality of pieces like the 1946 Donald Duck Duet with Donald and Goofy.
During the 1950s, J. Chein Company of New York joined a host of others producing wind-up toys. Their line included everything from ducks to speedboats, but their roller coaster with wind-up ‘cog’ chain and their brightly lithographed Disneyland Ferris Wheel were especially popular.
A tin lithographed and plastic wind-up robot in original box, he walks, his upper body rotates a full 360 degrees, as he destroys Tokyo. This is an example of wind-up toys from the mid to late 1960s. Made by MTU, Korea.
Marx’s wind-up Mickey Mouse of the 1950s came in plastic, as did Schuco’s Donald Duck and Wolverine’s Sulky Racer. In 1951 the Sulky Racer sold for $1.98. Line Mar Toys of Japan produced wind-ups for Marx, and Nomura, Kuramouchi and Suzuki also did exceedingly well in the same mechanical toy marketplace.
During the 1960s both the Flintstones wind-up flipover tank and the Twist Dancer were produced in Japan. Ideal, meanwhile, produced Mr. Machine, who wore a toy hat, moved his mouth and arms, and had a siren in his stomach. During the 1970s the same toy was produced with modifications and without the siren.
With a few exceptions from major companies, wind-up toys had been mostly replaced with battery-operated ones during the 1970s after more than 100 years of entertaining children with a simple spring.
—by Robert Reed
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