Mechanical toys have been around for well over a hundred years (likely over a thousand years). Isn’t that amazing? The Ancient Era actually saw mechanical singing birds that might resemble the ones we have on our clocks and in our toy chests today.
And no matter how technologically advanced we become, mechanical toys are still as fun today as they were back then. I love watching little kids faces light up when I send a wind-up toy car across the living room floor to them.
It’s not just kids either. Even us adults can find ourselves joyfully amused by the simplicity of a wind-up dancer in a music box. In fact, quite a few famous figures found themselves fascinated enough by mechanical toys to spend time inventing their own.
Whether you're looking for a gift or just want to add something fun to your own collection, vintage wind-up toys are sure to delight. Let us dive into the history of just how they came about, what varieties they have taken, and how they became popular.
Mechanical toys, the pre-cursors to wind-up toys, likely existed during Antiquity.
Mechanical toys have been around for centuries. Ancient Greek texts describe various mechanical toys that sound quite impressive. In fact, some of these were full-sized animated statues. According to surviving descriptions, the Ancient Greek inventor named Archytas designed and built an artificial, steam-propelled bird that could fly two hundred meters.
And what are known as clockwork birds made more than a few appearances in texts because they could be designed to both move and sing, proving themselves fascinating to observers’ ears and eyes. The Greeks even invented a water-based alarm clock. The clock filled up slowly with water, and when it reached the desired time, the water triggered a chirping mechanical bird – not dissimilar from later chirping clocks!
Historians credit some famous people with designing wind-up toys.
Though we do not have hard proof for most accounts, there are many reports of famous figures inventing versions of mechanical toys or figures.
Stories say Leonardo Da Vinci designed and built a wind-up mechanical lion that he presented to King Francois I of France. The original lion no longer exists, but you can find a replica at the Chateau du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo Da Vinci lived for a few years at the end of his life, in the Loire Valley in France.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Galileo Galilei supposedly spent many childhood hours fashioning simple mechanical toys. It must have been an early sign of his genius. And, back in France, rumor says that René Descartes created a life-sized wind-up girl. Unfortunately, the proof of this (his invention) was supposed thrown overboard by a captain who found the figure in Descartes’ luggage on board his ship that was travelling to Sweden. I guess that would be a scary thing to run across in the 1600s.
The 17th and 18th centuries saw a growth in mechanical toys and figures with clockwork gears that helped them move, sing, “eat,” and even excrete … Some were used for advertising, and others existed mainly as amusements.
Toy companies started mass-producing wind-up toys in the 1800s.
It wasn't until the 19th century that mechanical toys really took off and became more available to the general public. All kinds of mechanical dancers, boats, trains, and animals found their ways into novelty and toy shops.
The 1880s saw a truly significant innovation: the spring-loaded toy, known today as the wind-up toy. The popularity of wind-up toys continued to grow into the 20th century. In the age before computers, they impressed children and adults alike with their ability to move and animate on their own. Even today, they are more amusing and fascinating than many technologically-savvy individuals expect.
Wind-up toys are a wonderful way to keep your kids (and yourself) entertained. Vintage wind-up toys come in all shapes and sizes, and they're fun to play with.
You’ve probably played with some of the classic wind-up toys.
If you grew up in America, you probably spent some time laughing at those wind-up chattering teeth or sent a walking chick across the floor to your friend. Maybe you had other walking animals or wind-up cars.
Here at Vintage and Antique Gifts, we have added the truly classic tin wind-up drumming panda from the 1970s and 80s to our collection. And, from the same period, we have found a sweet wind-up mother duck trailed by her three adoring and adorable ducklings. To complete our little but fun collection, we have a colorful wind-up train. And all of these toys we found still in their boxes and fully functional.
We hope to bring you more wind-up toys in future since we know how timelessly entertaining they are and how much people value their wind-up toy collections.
What's you favorite vintage toy? Share in the comments below!