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Magpie: A Star Is Born

Magpie: A Star Is Born

Did you know that tinplate has its origins in the early 1600s? No? I didn’t either – so it’s a pretty ancient form of metalworking, if we’re honest about it. Saxony was where it all started, apparently, and it didn’t arrive over here until the second half of the 17th century. Boxes and containers were the end product in those early days but in the fullness of time, all that would change.

Tinplate became associated with toys quite some time later. Germany would emerge as the leading exponent of the art, and in the later 1800s, many were the companies based there, who were designing and manufacturing miniature tinplate toys that came alive, thanks to their colourfully printed surfaces.

Pass round any toyfair today and, like as not, you’ll chance upon these delights from yesteryear. They shout out at you from the wooden tables: there’s everything from figurines and animals through vehicles, aeroplanes, airships and boats to buildings, robots and space rockets. You name it: if it could be formed and rolled and pressed and joined together by tabs, then pretty much anything was fair game for the toymaker of the era.

Why did tinplate catch on? Well, that’s an easy one to answer. Wooden toys, thanks again largely to German ingenuity, were to be found everywhere around the globe but their golden years were passing. Children were growing more sophisticated and, of course, manufacturing methods were also reaching new heights after the era of the Industrial Revolution. Tinplate was cheap enough to produce, and was infinitely versatile when the subject matter was the toy, as mentioned above; and with the advent of chromolithography came the possibility to “paint”, as it were, the result with little labour having to be expended.

Offset lithography really got this area off the ground: it could be a painstaking process where complicated colouring was involved, such as might be the case with passengers in bus windows, for example. The end result, though, invariably justified the time spent on the procedure.

To begin with, a drawing was executed on special stone with the aid of a grease pencil. When wetted, the ink would adhere to the drawing and not to the wet stone. Subsequently, the drawing was printed on to paper, in much the same way as a woodcut would have been executed.

The afore-mentioned process of offset lithography was introduced to print designs on tinplate sheets: this was achieved through the use of a rubber roller towards the end of the 19th century. By the time the Second World War was  engulfing Europe, the process had been further perfected. This allowed designs to be printed on 50 sets of tinplate a minute, thereby opening up the doors to mass production. Germany continued to manufacture but by the 1950s and 1960s Japan was setting the pace and today that country’s output is considered legendary.

To an extent, it’s that effort arising from mass production which has left us with the tinplate legacy that we can enjoy today. The most commonly sighted tinplate at the toyfair will invariably be road vehicles or tanks of some description: names like Gama and Joustra are often spotted in this context. But there’s a lot more besides. As mentioned, Japanese output was prodigious and companies like Cragstan, Bandai and Horikawa are well respected in this sector: these are just three out of scores. What is frustrating for the collector, though, is the fact that not all Japanese manufacturers are easily identified from their markings: sometimes a bit of homework is required.

Looking back, the heyday of tinplate was probably the 1960s and early 1970 and, as collecting area, it’s one that remains pretty buoyant. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this is a dead cert in terms of monetary return, but certainly the big, early tinplate names like Bing are often seen at auction and their examples generally fetch good money. You don’t, though, have to go all the way back to the early 1900s to acquire tinplate: the Far Eastern offerings are well worth looking out for, especially when boxed. Space toys and robots are highly desirable but readers of this magazine, the big, multifunction tinplate saloons and convertibles of the 1960s are selling well today, if dealer conversations are to be believed.

One thing is for sure, though: tinplate toys are finite in number. The Health & Safety brigade put paid to the Golden Age to a large extent and these toys suddenly became hard to find o their markets were limited. Japan faded away, leaving the stage to the likes of India, Russia, Czechoslovakia and later, China. The quality wasn’t the same, it has to be said, but at least you could still whet your appetite. In time, even these sources began to dry up, which is a great pity, since a lot of people identify with these toys.

What to collect becomes a matter of taste – and depends also on the depth of your pocket. Bear in mind that’s some of these toys are really antiques now, and their values are thus removed from the toy sector proper. Fortunately, there’s plenty of more recent tinplate about and if you want battery-powered tinplate, then that, too, is readily available.

Condition is everything here: by their nature, toys were played with and batteries were often left in situ, which can lead to corrosion problems. This needs to be borne in mind when viewing a potential purchase. Equally, scratches and scuffs on tinplate are almost unavoidable to some degree, unless the toy in question has lived a charmed life.

But find a good example, perhaps clockwork, and the thing has huge presence, much, much more than, say, a 1:43 diecast. But beware: addiction lurks just around the corner…

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Magpie, from p. 4 of issue April 2016
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