Masters of Tinplate
When the Japanese got into tinplate, sparks really began to fly!
When do you think tinplate toys began? In the 1920s, perhaps the 1930s? Try the 1880s. I was surprised too. Toys up till then had been mostly made the way Geppetto made Pinocchio, by hand carving wood; so cheap toys were often simplistic and crude. Even when metal was used, as in lead toy soldiers, the decorating process made manufacturing extremely labour-intensive. And even after tin toys first appeared, they too were painstakingly hand-painted, pushing up prices. It was the application of chromolithography – an early form of colour printing – that changed every- thing. This technique allowed multi-coloured illustrations to be printed on to flat sheets of tinplate that could then be stamped out and put together by means of bendable tabs to form the finished toy – and the mass market for these toys took off in an explosion of colour.
Surprisingly, Japan was quick to enter the market place. At the time Japan was still thought of as a place of cherry blossom and geishas rather than an industrial powerhouse. But by 1905 it was making models of the first auto- mobiles from lithographed and hand-bent tin- covered sheet steel. By 1914, the Japanese tripled their exports by making tin streetcars, locomotives, and even the tracks they ran on.
As always, novelty rules, and tin toys with working parts such as balls being kicked or sent to the tops of towers so they could roll down again, were all the rage. In the 1920s and ‘30s, aeroplanes designed to land on water were also popular as were trios of aircraft that spun in circles from the tops of clockwork-powered merry-go- rounds – something that has never lost its appeal.
The Japanese genius for miniaturising technology was on display again during the 1930s when Japanese companies such as Kuramochi Co. began producing large models of American cars – some as long as 12 inches – such as Graham-Paige, Packard, Buick, Plymouth, and Chrysler. They used simple but effective clockwork motors to power these new toys, and some even had electric lights!
Although Japan had been a major producer for as long as the Europeans, often producing cheaper copies of European toys right up to the outbreak of World War II. It was still the Ger- man makers who dominated the market, being masters of quality and innovation. When peace returned, plastic replaced tinplate in the West because it was cheaper, more accessible, easy to mould and more durable. But the Japanese, with limited access to resources and equipment, continued to manufacture tinplate toys – some- times even re-using food tins discarded by American soldiers! They revived some of the pre-war companies and created new ones. The industry’s labour force was mostly female home-workers, who brought their part-assembled work to a local factory for final assembly.
This new dawn saw the emergence of Japan as a new market leader and the American military basically helped put the Japanese toy industry back in business. Most of these toys were for export as the Japanese were suffering from post-war poverty.
Japan now controlled the tinplate market and put their all into it with the addition of many new novelties. No longer just wind-up or friction-driven, some toys were now powered by batteries and able to provide flashing lights... and sound! In the 1950s and early ‘60s, the Japanese flooded the market with many appealingly new designs, a large percentage of them were items very familiar to Americans, to exploit the wealthy US purchasing power. But markets never stand still, and despite this relative boom in the post-war era, tin toy manufacturing was finally defeated by its looming arch-nemesis – plastic. By the 1970s, Japan had made the switch too, reducing the tin toy out- put so dramatically that many factories ceased production altogether. It was pretty much the end of an era for Japanese tinplate toy making, but not for the toys themselves, which have found a whole new generation of fans!
*article taken from Antiquexplorer magazine - Nov 2014 - photographs courtesy of Vectis Auctions.