Next time you are walking by a toy store, take a minute to poke your head inside. You may see something you haven’t seen in years – tinplate toys. Tin toys were a favorite of children from the turn of the century though the late sixties. Whether it was a car, a roller coaster or something as silly as a duck riding a bike, boys and girls alike loved playing with these toys. Demand for the toys waned during the seventies as safer toys made of plastic came into fashion, but now both antique and replica tin toys are making a nostalgic comeback.
Tinplate toys were first produced in Germany in the late 1800s as a cheap and durable substitute for wooden toys. They were called tinplate because they were made of thin sheets of steel covered with tin. Many of the tin toys were mechanical – they could be wound for movement or pulled to make sounds. Older toys were hand painted until the offset color lithography process was discovered. By the early 1900s, both the US and Japan had joined in on the production. Today’s tin toys are made primarily in China.
You might remember names like J. Chein, Schuco, Marusan and Louis Marx. These companies were among the more prolific manufacturers of tin toys in their heyday. Tin toys not only provided hours of fun, but were made with such detail that they opened up a whole new world of imagination and play for the children. There were practical tin toys; ovens, irons and sewing machines for the future homemakers; telephones, adding machines and typewriters for the budding young entrepreneurs. There were tin cars that would speed across the wooden floor of the house, trains that looked lifelike and robots that offered the promise of a high tech future. There were tin toys of cartoon favorites like Popeye and Mickey Mouse and real life cowboy Roy Rogers. Then there were the tins that were just for fun; a monkey playing drums, an egg-laying hen, even an elephant on a bike.
If you were one of the lucky ones to keep a tin from your childhood, you probably want to know how much your toy is worth. You can take your tin toy to a qualified antique appraiser, but there are also some things you can do to determine its value. Do you remember what year you received it? If you don’t remember, check to see if it has the country of origin marked on it. For example, a toy that is marked Germany was created after 1890, when the McKinley Tariff Act required all imports to be marked with the country name from which it came. Toys marked “Made in US Zone Germany” or “Made in Occupied Japan” range in date from 1945 until 1952 and are highly sought after items. Patent numbers on a toy can be submitted to the US Patent Office for the date of the patent application. But, age is not always a good indicator of value. Some older items, because they are so common, are not of great value including chemistry sets, die-cast miniatures, banks, and scooters.
There are factors that determine price other than age. Condition of your toy is important. If it had holes made from wear, missing tabs that used to connect the pieces or flaking paint, the value will be diminished. On the other hand, if your item is large, the value may increase. The larger items were not produced as frequently as smaller items. Do you have the original box? Having the original box your toy came in can often double the price. A manufacturer’s mark also helps determine price. You can search eBay to see at what price a tin like yours is selling. Books on antique toys at your local library may also offer insight.
Tin toys can be bought at antique stores, estate and garage sales and both in-person and online auction houses. If you are buying in person, be sure to inspect the item well. Check to make sure it is an antique, unless you are looking for a reproduction. Make note of the condition. If the price is high, the condition should be good to excellent. If you are buying online, ask for photos if they are not readily available. See if there are other sellers that have the same item for sale and compare the prices. Also be sure to check the feedback of the seller to see what other buyers think of their online business. Arm yourself with the knowledge of what an original should look like versus a reproduction. No matter how much care was taken with a tin toy, it should show some signs of wear. Also check for a zip code mark on the toy. If there is a zip code, the toy was made after 1963, when the zip code was created.
You can also search eBay to buy a tin toy that you may remember from your childhood, but weren’t able to keep. You will need to decide if you want an original or a reproduction. Reproductions will be cheaper, but may not look exactly like the original. For example, some cartoon character antique tins may look slightly different from today’s image (see picture) because the characteristics have changed over the years.
Finally, take care of your toy if you decide to keep it. It is best to store the tin toy in the original box, if you have it. If you want to display your tin toy as a loving reminder of your childhood, be sure to avoid sunlight as that might fade the paint. A damaged toy may be repaired, but be very careful with repairs. If you try to repair it yourself, even doing a little touch up painting may damage it further and reduce the value. Check with an antique dealer in your town to see if they can do the repairs and how much it would cost.