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Tin Toys in America

It is hard to believe, in this age of electronic toys that beep, flash, and move, that there was a time when the simple figure of an animal, mounted on a tin platform with wheels, could have been considered exciting and desirable. In almost all instances, the animal did not move; a child simply pulled the platform along the floor. Nor was the animal particularly exotic. Most of the figures were drawn from the agricultural life of the time and represented farm animals. Sometimes, a bear or an elephant was found, but these were infrequent. Still, hundreds of thousands of these toys were produced in the mid-to late-19th century.

Before the 1840s, most toys were handmade, but increases in production and the evolution of the 19th-century views on childhood began to change how children—and toys—were treated. In 1838, the Philadelphia firm of Francis, Field, and Francis began to produce tin toys, which are actually made of sheet steel coated with tin. They mass-produced parts that were soldered together or tabbed to fit together, then decorated the figures with paint. At first, details were hand done, but stencils were soon used to hasten production. This firm helped spur the idea of toy stores, which began to appear in the 1840s. In 1844, New York City had 88 toy stores.

Other toy makers followed, most notably (for tin toys) George W. Brown and James Fallows. Brown simplified the forms of the animals, giving them an almost folk art appeal. He had apprenticed as a clockmaker and, in 1856, produced the first clockwork train. Although the Civil War disrupted toy production, the years following the War saw an explosion of companies and creativity. Fallows, who had worked for Francis, Field, and Francis, started in 1874, adding cast iron wheels, bells, and papier-mache elements to his toys.

Today, the toys which remain are avidly sought and collected. These toys were fragile, given to rust and other abuses of the time, so the ones that survive are treasured. As with all antiques, the condition is paramount to value; the quality of the surviving paint is particularly important in determining price. But the appeal of these simple forms is strong, harkening back to a quieter time when play was less frenetic.

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