The early 20th century saw the rise in popularity and production of lithographed tin-toys, including robots, sleek space rockets and windups, which are now highly coveted by collectors. One of the leading companies in all things tin was Chein. Like many successful companies, Chein didn’t start out in the toy industry. Instead, it began life in 1903 as a metal-stamping operation, but soon began creating little tin prizes for Cracker Jack boxes and small toys for five-and-dime stores.
Throughout the early 20th century J. Chein & CO bought the rights to many comic characters to be used for toys like Felix the Cat, Popeye and later Disney characters. Today, these early toys bring in a lot of money from collectors. One of the most popular Chein windup toys is one that depicts a 9-inch Felix the Cat chasing two 4-inch red mice, with two 5-inch Felix figures following. The Felix Frolic, as it’s known, was sold for a high bid of over $26,000 at Morphy Auctions in 2006.
Although comic characters tend to fetch the highest prices, Chein is probably best known for creating beautiful windup carnival rides like the iconic Ferris wheel and roller coaster. What is exciting about collecting these carnival rides is that there are many versions of each because of the use of different lithography. Other unique, windup toys from Chein include a Playland Merry-Go-Round carousel with children seated atop horses and swan coaches, and the now very rare Airplane Whirler Space Ride.
Chein was incredibly successful as a producer of tin toys, but with the influx of foreign competition the company began to slowly crumble. However, they continued creating really great quality toys, and it wasn’t until manufacturers began to use plastic did Chein really begin suffer. Tin as a toy material was rapidly becoming obsolete, and the reluctance to switch to plastic, advertise on TV and sell to the masses led Chein to end its tin toy production for good.
Today you can still find a vast array of windup animals, vehicles and people. Chein created popular windups which included ducks, pigs, an aquaplane, fish, cars, a patriotic walking clown and bunnies, to name a few. These little tin toys are beautifully made, delicate pieces of history that continue to be increasingly popular with a wide range of collectors. Tin toy collecting has had a long tradition in the United States, and as metal toys are becoming scarcer every year, Chein windup toys continue to increase in value and desirability.