Tin Litho Toys
Tin litho toys are made from tinplate which is thin sheets of steel plated with tin. Toys using tinplate began production in the mid 1800s. The material was used because it was an inexpensive yet durable substance for wooden toys. The earliest tin litho toys were made and painted by hand. In the 1850s spring activated tin toys were produced in Germany. Offset lithography, a technique used to print designs on tinplate using a rubber roller, was introduced in the 1880s.
Germany was the major producer of tin litho toys during the early 1900s. Ernst Paul Lehmann was a renowned German manufacturer of tin toys. It was said that he exported 90% of his production. Subsequently, England and France joined the tin litho toy industry.
The United States had also started to produce tinplate toy with some smaller manufacturing firms, but experience real growth after World World I. There was an ample supply when tin ore mines were opened in Illinois. After WWI, there was a high level of anti-German sentiment. This yielded an overwhelming demand for American produced products. By the 1920s American firms were the industry leaders.
By far, the largest and most successful firm to produce tin litho toys from the 1920s to the 1960s was Louis Marx and Company. Brothers Louis and David Marx had a formula for success: to produce a large volume of a large number of designs. This allowed them to keep their prices at a reasonable level. They purchased the tooling for two obsolete tin toys from toymaker Ferdinand Strauss, a former employee of Louis Marx. They made subtle changes to Alabama Minstrel Dance and Zippo the Climbing Monkey. These two tin litho toys became top sellers, selling 8 million of each within two years. By 1922, David and Louis Marx were millionaires. The original Marx tin litho toys are highly sought after by collectors.
It was during this time that another manufacturing innovation was discovered. The process was known as chromolithography. Used previously in the printing industry, it involved making a drawing on special stones using a grease pencil before the printing ink was applied. When wetted, the ink holds fast to the drawing and not the wet stone.
The production of tin toys was halted during World War II because the metal was needed in the war effort. Following the war, The Marshall Plan was a program enacted to help European countries rebound from the devastating effects of war. The U.S. helped the Japanese in these efforts to granting them the right to resume production of tin litho toys. It was thought that producing these toys were not extremely profitable because they were labor intensive. The Japanese perfected the process and became a leader in tin toy manufacturing until then end of the 1950s. The tin toys were changed in the 1960s. They became made of plastic due to safety regulations. Currently, China is considered the leader in tin litho toy productions.
A great example of a tin litho toys was a 1950 replication of TV puppet, Howdy Dowdy. It was recently sold at $1200. Tin litho toys in excellent conditions are considered collectibles.