Collecting through the decades - the 1940s

12 July 2022
In the first of a new series, we take a look at popular children's toys through the decades.
Collecting through the decades - the 1940s Images

The 1940s must have been a difficult time for families. With a war going on, over a million children were evacuated from cities to escape the bombings, men off fighting for King and country and a shortage of just about everything including food, clothing and toys.

Toy factories had converted from manufacturing toys to manufacturing items for the war effort, so the chances of getting your hands on new toys was slim. Lines Brothers for example, went into designing and producing a revised version of the sten gun. Chad Valley changed to making cases for the barrels of anti-aircraft guns, hospital beds and electrical parts such as coils and starters. Bassett-Lowke found their models in demand for the war effort to help train recruits in identifying friendly and enemy aircraft and ships, or to find their way around ships or technical equipment.

As for the children in wartime Britain, they had to make do with their old toys and hand me downs from older siblings or make their own from cloth and wood; and no doubt many a Spitfire or Hurricane would have been carved out of scrap wood for little Tommy to re-enact the battles raging in the skies for real. As for those old and hand me down toys, there had certainly been lots produced prior to the 1940s, made by companies in the UK, Germany, the USA, Europe and Japan. There were  tinplate, lithographed wind-up and battery toys that had been made in the 1930s and earlier by companies such as Mettoy, Louis Marx, Ideal Toy Co., Tri-ang, Wells Brimtoy, Tootsietoys, Hornby, Bassett-Lowke, Chad Valley and many more. In 1938 Chad Valley had received a royal warrant as ‘Toymakers to H.M. The Queen’. This changed later when Princess Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952 to read ‘Toymakers to H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’.

Tinplate toys these days can fetch top prices at auction. For example, in recent years a Bing 4-seat tourer achieved £13,500 at a Bonham's auction and a 1905 Japanese battleship sold for £12,000 at Sotheby’s.

Youngsters would have treasured their Dinky cars which had been around since the 1930s. 1933 saw the first Dinkies being produced although they weren’t called Dinky until 1934. Until then they were known as Modelled Miniatures. For some youngsters, taking good care of their Dinky toys, and the boxes, resulted in them amassing some great collections. In 2016 a Dinky toy collection of around 3,500 cars fetched £150,000 at auction following the death of the owner, John Kinchen of Portsmouth. The models dated from 1937 to the early 1970s. It seems that as a child he was bought a couple of pre-war Dinkies which sparked his enthusiasm.

Board games were popular in the 1940s, including Monopoly which had been around since 1935. Unbelievably, the Slinky which seems such a modern invention was created in 1943 by Richard and Betty James. Some lucky children may have had a View-Master, invented in the late 1930s. Meccano of course, created by Frank Hornby had been a popular toy since the start of the 1900s. Table-top railways and train sets with technology such as remote controls, lights and sound effects improving all the while. Trix Twin Train Sets were loved by many.

While Scalextric didn’t appear until the mid-1950s, slot cars had been around since 1912, made originally by American company Lionel, to tie in with the train sets that were growing in popularity.

Big toys too would have been handed down to younger siblings such as pedal cars, tricycles, bicycles and scooters. And remember the Mobo Bronco pressed steel horse, which galloped along when you pressed the pedals down? These were first made in 1947 by David Sebel & Son in Erith, Kent.

Youngsters would have had roller skates, girls would play with dolls, teddies and prams. Jigsaw puzzles had been around since the 18th century. Sci-fi was making its mark with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon books, comics and accessories. Lead soldiers from companies such as Britains were ever popular and when war seemed imminent, military toys came more and more onto the market. Until of course production of toys ceased in the main, to help with the war effort.

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With the outbreak of war and toys becoming more scarce to buy in the shops, Woolworths decided to do their very best to keep up the morale of children and mothers by stocking affordable toys made from paper and card to help pass the time when they were down in the air raid shelters. Despite shortages, the store continued to have these toys available in abundance with prices kept below sixpence. Japan exported cheap toys to Britain too.

As collectors know, before the second World War, Germany was big in toy manufacturing, Nuremberg being the country’s toy capital. Amongst the well know names were: Marklin, Schuko, Fleischmann, Bubb, Bing, Arnold, Fischer, Carette, Gunthermann, Tippco and Hess. However, the war put German toys totally out of favour and many of these companies went bankrupt.

The shortage of metal was still causing problems after the war had ended, and when toys were once again being produced in the UK, the priority was in exporting them rather than selling to the home market to help the British economy recover. But other materials were gradually taking over from metal such as Bakelite and early hard plastic.

So, while the 1940s saw children playing with toys produced in earlier decades, the late 1940s were however the starting point for many toys and brands that have become household names, and still being played with – and collected today. Here’s just a few that were launched in the 1940s:

• In 1949 we saw the start of the most popular toy of all time – Lego made by The Lego Group. They began manufacturing the interlocking toy bricks in 1949 but it wasn’t until 1955 that they became available in the UK. As of July 2015, 600 billion Lego parts had been produced.

• D.C.Thomson’s first Beano annual came out in 1940, the first comic had come out two years earlier. Early editions of the Beano have been known to fetch £12,000 at auction. Cluedo, invented by Anthony E Pratt in 1944 was granted a patent in 1947 by Waddington Games and published in 1948. Scrabble was created by Alfred Mosher Butts in 1948, originally called Criss-Crosswords. However, he wasn’t successful in selling the game, and James Burnot bought the rights. He changed the name to Scrabble and sold 2,400 sets that year. It was eventually sold to Hasbro.  

• Subbuteo was launched in March in 1947, invented, manufactured and distributed by Peter Adolph of Tunbridge Wells, Kent after he was demobbed from the RAF at the end of WWII. Lesney Products & Co Ltd started up in January 1947 as an industrial die-casting company by Leslie Smith and Rodney Smith – school friends who had served together in the Royal Navy during the war. They branched into making diecast toys the following year, and of course went on to create Matchbox Toys – which as collectors know can sometimes fetch thousands of pounds at auction. For example, collector Simon Hope of Warrington sold his treasured collection of 3,000 Matchbox vehicles over three Vectis Auctions, which earned him an amazing £300,000.