Advances in technology have provided toy makers with new ideas for models and toys to replicate the society in which we live. Models and building bricks enable children to play imaginatively constructing and creating their own versions of the things they see around them. The popularity of these toys is often governed by events, such as the growth of the railways in the 19th century or the advent of space travel in the 20th century.
The earliest recorded doll's house was made for Albert V, Duke of Bavaria, between 1550 and 1579. It was a copy of his own residence and became known as his 'baby house'. Prosperous Dutch merchants and bankers were also eager to display evidence of their success. They collected precious items and displayed them in pieces of furniture, such as linen or china cabinets, which could be locked. These became known as 'cabinet houses'.
In the 17th and 18th centuries doll’s houses were popular in Germany, Holland and England. The interiors of the houses reflected the lifestyles of their owners and many were made purely as collector’s pieces with contents made by craftsmen. English baby houses were slightly different because the owners wanted the whole building, including the exterior, to replicate their homes.
At the same time single rooms were made as teaching toys such as the miniature Nuremberg kitchens which were used to teach housewifery skills to young ladies. Replica shops such as market stalls, butchers shops and milliners were also made.
The fixtures and fittings in the 19th century doll's houses reflect the technological changes and tastes of the period. Often toy makers worked at home and Charles Dickens refers to the workroom of Caleb and his daughter, 'There were houses in it, finished and unfinished, for Dolls of all stations of life', Cricket on the Hearth, 1845.
In the early 20th century the commercial production of doll's houses increased considerably. Lines Brothers produced extremely well made houses reflecting suburban architecture. Additional fittings such as plumbing and electricity were available at extra cost and even a repair and redecoration service. With the introduction of plastics doll's houses have become more robust and open plan. However, many doll's house collectors are still adults and the interest in houses old and new continues.
Simple wooden construction toys designed to produce model villages, farms & buildings were first made in Germany at the end of the 18th century. These toys grew out of the rural craftsmanship and were cheap to produce. Alphabet bricks made to teach young children in the nursery were also predecessor of the building brick.
Building blocks were considered educational because they required dexterity and imagination to produce results. Boxes of rectangular, triangular and cylindrical building bricks made of beech or oak were produced by a number of makers in the 19th century.
In the 1860s Jesse and Charles Crandall patented an interlocking system using tongue and groove blocks to produce acrobats, circus characters and buildings.
Dr Richter designed a system of powdered stone and resin building blocks called Anchor Blocks in the late 19th century. He was influenced by the work of Friedrich Frobel who had developed progressive teaching methods for young children in Rudolstadt, Germany.
By the 20th century simple wood, stone and cardboard blocks could not adequately reflect the impact of mechanical and civil engineering on society. Mechanics Made Easy, later to become Meccano, was patented by Frank Hornby in 1901 who wanted to encourage his sons interest in mechanical engineering. He devised a construction set made of perforated metal strips which could be held together by conventional nuts and bolts. The sets proved popular and in 1914 the company acquired the Binns Road site, Liverpool which remained as their headquarters for the next 60 years. In 1920 the Meccano Inventor’s Outfit added miniature engineering components to the sets enabling boys of all ages to create cars, aeroplanes, trains and steamships.
Meccano introduced red and green coloured parts in 1926 and in 1934 blue and gold parts were added. The sets also began to include rubber tyres, ship’s funnels, shuttles and other specialist parts to add realism to working models. Various attempts were made to keep the success of Meccano alive in the 1950s and 1960s and plastic sets were brought out. In 1964 Meccano was taken over by Lines Bros.
The popularity of ‘O’ gauge railway sets saw a rise in the production of station building construction sets.
Lott’s Bricks, first marketed in 1918, were made from resin bonded artificial stone and had printed cardboard roofs. There were two types of sets, the Modern and the Tudor style.
Minibrix were made by the Premo Rubber Company, Petersfield, Hampshire. The bricks locked together with moulded press-in studs and were a forerunner to Lego. Bayko Bricks were made of thermoset Bakelite and held together with rods and ties, patented in 1933 by the Plimpton Engineering Company, Liverpool. There were six sets to buy each of which included a number of architectural features and children could buy conversion sets to upgrade which ever set they had.
Brickplayer sets were sold from 1951 to 1964. The sets contained miniature moulded bricks which could be constructed into buildings using a flour paste mix mortar. Finished buildings could be dismantled at a later date by soaking them in water until they fell apart.
Lego was founded by Ole Kirk Christiansen in 1934 producing wooden toys. He later developed the plastic Lego bricks which could be joined together by moulded stud and tube fastenings in 1955. The range of Lego bricks produced seems ever expanding and sets are made to appeal to children’s active imaginations. Many toy manufacturers have adapted their construction toys to appeal to pre-school children making bigger, brighter building blocks such as Duplo by Lego and Stickle Bricks.
Cheap toys carved from a single piece of wood and brightly painted were often sold by pedlars and street traders in the early 19th century. They were mainly produced by rural craftsmen or in small backstreet factories and sweatshops. In the late 19th century these toys were replaced by even cheaper toys stamped out of tinplate which were exported from Germany. Many of the toys were clockwork and were developed as a sideline of watchmaking. They were originally made in the 1830s for the amusement of adults.
Much of the tinplate trade was based in Nuremberg and companies such as Bing and Issmayer began production there in the 1860s. There were three main methods of printing designs onto tinplate; directly from a lithographic stone, transfer printing with paper and offset lithography using a rubber roller. The range of tinplate toys was varied and included penny toys as well as more expensive lithographed models. By the early 20th century German manufacturers were producing high quality tinplate models of all types of transport.
The first British diecast cars were introduced in 1931 when Frank Hornby had the idea of ‘Modelled Miniatures’ to accompany his 0 gauge railway. Diecast models were cheaper and easier to make than tin toys and manufacturers could achieve more accurate scale models.
Battery power has had a huge impact on the production of toys. In the 1950s and 1960s Japan became the biggest producer of battery operated toys which could move faster and longer and had more features for children to play with.
Scalextric was created by Lines Brothers in 1958 and reflected the popularity of motor racing. The sets started at just under £4 and offered 24 types of plastic car and more than fifty buildings and accessories.
The late 1960s saw a new type of car on the market, Mattel’s Hot Wheels, which had low friction wheels that could send a car over a further distance with a single push. The main diecast toy manufacturers were forced to revamp their model ranges making models with faster wheels and metallic paint.
In the 1930s the cinema introduced children to space and the adventures of Buck Rogers. Interest in the unknown has continued throughout this century and both fact and fiction have influenced the toy market. In 1959 Corgi introduced Rocket Age Models influenced by the Cold War. Early examples of robots were probably based on Robbie the Robot from the 1956 film ‘The Forbidden Planet’. Using battery power robots have been made to speak and have flashing eyes and lasers. Thunderbirds, Dr Who and Star Wars have inspired a range of collectible figures and accessories that are sought after by children and adults alike.
Trains were the first form of modern transport to be copied as toys and wooden pull-along trains were available from the 1840s onwards. By the 1870s the wooden toy train was replaced by tinplate locomotives and tenders with carriages which were often powered by clockwork or steam propulsion. The boilers leaked so much on steam trains that they became known as 'dribblers'.
Marlin introduced a new range of trains in three different sizes, with matching track gauges at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1891. He also demonstrated the switch point and cross-over allowing a figure of eight track to be used. German firms realised the marketing advantages of having a standard track size. They began to create all the accessories a boy might need to run a miniature railway.
To sell well in Britain German manufacturers needed to supply trains with recognisable liveries and W J Bassett-Lowke and A W Gamages imported a range of German trains. However, World War I broke the German monopoly on toys, as imports were banned, and toy manufacturers began to rely more on British resources and expertise.
Hornby felt that the German large gauges were too big to be practical toys and concentrated on making 0 gauge trains. The Hornby train range was the most comprehensive ever produced in Britain making finely detailed locomotives and commercial vans, wagons and tankers. In 1925 Hornby introduced his first electric train which ran on a three wheel track with a live central rail. During the 1920s and 1930s Hornby introduced a vast range of locomotives, engines, tenders and wagons.
In order to compete with the Trix Twin range Hornby produced the smaller 00 gauge Dublo table top train series, available with clockwork or electric power, in 1938. The gauge O trains from Bassett-Lowke and Hornby reduced in popularity in the early 1960s. Hornby and Trix could not compete with the cheaper Tri-ang trains and Hornby were taken over by Lines Brothers in 1964.
World War I made the general public more aware of technology and toy manufacturers responded to the desire for more accurate mechanical toys. The German manufacturer Lehmann saw how popular airships were and made toy Zeppelins, with propellers, which performed a circular flight when suspended. During the 1920s and 1930s civilian airliners became popular toys as well as fighter planes, bombers and seaplanes.
FROG kits, which stands for Flies Right Off The Ground, were made by the International Model Aircraft Ltd and marketed by Lines. Once assembled the plane could be flown by using the winder in the side of the box to wind up the rubber band attached to the propeller.
World War II increased demand for model aircraft and parents resorted to making home-made wooden toys for their children. In 1952 Airfix launched the first injection moulded construction kit. The company received a huge order from Woolworths and one of their most popular models was the Spitfire which came out in 1953. Dinky introduced a large scale aircraft range in the 1970s. Lesney also made a range of diecast aircraft called Sky-Busters which came out in 1973.
Early boats were made from wood and fitted with removable wheels so they could be sailed across the floor. Noah's Arks were very popular in the 19th century. Although they weren't designed to float many show traces of immersion in water. By the early 20th century German manufacturers were producing tinplate models of all types of transport. However, steam-powered and clockwork tinplate boats that could actually sail were difficult and expensive to produce because they required watertight soldered joints.The British toy manufacturers decided to concentrate on a range of simple robust toy boats. Pond yachts which could float on ponds and lakes were popular with children in the 1920s and 1930s. At the same time Sutcliffe Pressings, Leeds began making wooden and tin boats fitted with small methylated spirit lamps which, when fired, boiled up water in the copper tubing which was expelled under force causing the boat to move. Hornby introduced a range of clockwork tin boats, including speedboats and cabin cruisers in the 1930s.
The increased use of plastics for toys meant that boats could be made which had a longer sailing life. Tri-ang produced a successful range of large scale plastic clockwork civilian boats in the 1950s and 1960s.
Miniature toy soldiers have been found buried with the Pharoahs in Egypt. Model soldiers were a widespread hobby by the 18th century inspired by the exploits of Frederick the Great. Early tin soldiers were moulded between two pieces of slate and called ‘flats’, they were made in Germany from the 1730s onwards.
In 1893 William Britain devised a method of hollow-casting lead soldiers which made them cheaper and lighter than their German counterparts. Britain’s attention to detail made the soldiers popular collectors pieces. World War II saw the rise of grisly accessories such as barbed wire and tanks. However the desire for peace made war toys unpopular and other figures such as the Home Farm set and zoo animals were made.
Britains dominated the market until the 1950s although the technique was used by a number of other firms, such as Crescent, Johillco and Timpo. The increase in the cost of metal, the influence of plastic on the toy industry and safety regulations have all played their part in the decline of toy soldiers.