Page 1


Exhibition developed in collaboration with the MusĂŠe national de la Marine, Paris


From the mid-19th century, immense and rapid changes in ship design and technology ignited the imaginations of toy-makers and children. The toy boats made in response mimicked real life, yet were rarely accurate copies of real vessels. Instead toy-makers took elements from different boats, simplified and exaggerated them, and then combined them to create toys that would express the excitement and adventure children craved. Today old toy boats are quite rare. Playing with them on ponds or lakes led to many rusting away or being accidentally lost. Those that have survived usually bear dents and scratches from years of play. This exhibition shows the development, range and variety of toy boats made by the major European manufacturers between 1850 and 1950. Most of the toys come from the exceptionally rich collection of the MusĂŠe national de la Marine in Paris. A number of fine toys from British collections are also included.

Toy-makers got their ideas for toy boats by looking at real boats and noting the parts they liked. They mixed these ideas up with a little imagination to make fantasy boats that children would find exciting and want to play with. Most toys from the past were played with so much that they got lost or damaged, like these toy boats recovered from the bottom of a pond. Talk with your family or friends about your favourite toys, and how you look after them.


In the 19th century most toys were intended to educate and instruct children, in preparation for adult life. For boys, working boats inspired scientific interest and introduced skills useful for a career at sea. In the early 1800s most toy boats would have been hand-made. They were either made by craftsmen employed by wealthy families, or purchased from ordinary tradesmen – carpenters, tinsmiths, jewellers and locksmiths – as a sideline to their main business. These boats were usually ‘one-offs’ made to order and fashioned from materials close at hand. Hand-crafted sailing yachts and makeshift paper boats were joined in the mid-19th century by machine-made tinplate toys, which embraced the new mechanized age. These boats were manufactured in toy factories, primarily in the United States, Germany, and France.

Early toy boats were made by hand for children, so it was unusual to see two toys that were the same. Toy-boat makers used materials they could find easily to make toys. Often these materials were left over from other jobs and making toys was a good way of using them up. Find the boat above, and circle the materials you can see on it.







TOY BOATS AT HOME Newspapers and magazines, whose circulation grew rapidly during this period, brought the maritime world into the home. They described technological wonders, naval battles, maritime disasters and celebrated ship launchings, to which toy-makers reacted with a range of nautically inspired toys and games. Pull-along toys and wheeled boats addressed children’s growing fascination with all things maritime. Suitable for those who had little or no access to ponds, lakes or waterways, they were designed to be ‘sailed’ across tables and floors. Nautical board games, puzzles and model kits also reflected current interests and tastes. For some children water-filled baths, basins, buckets and puddles added a sense of realism and excitement, and gave them the opportunity to see their toys in action.

Children played with toy boats wherever they could at home. On table-tops or carpets in the living-room or nursery; in the garden or at bath-time and even in water-filled buckets or puddles. Some toys boats could be pulled along the floor. Copy the rowing action of one of the people in this toy boat, who move when it travels across the floor. Think of a song to go with your action.

MINIATURE OCEANS 19th-century town planning led to a rise in the number of public spaces in cities and towns. These often had decorative ponds and fountains where children could play with an assortment of toy boats. As coastal holidays became popular, toy boats were also essential accessories for a trip to the seaside. Sailing yachts and small clockwork boats were the most common toys seen on park ponds during this period. It was on the water that these vessels appeared at their best, and where they were most visible to others. Relatively simple tin boats gradually gave way to larger and more sophisticated toys, as factories and consumers competed to have the finest examples on the water. Eventually the sheer size and weight of some of these factory showpieces relegated children to the role of spectator. These boats instead became exhibition pieces or adult curiosities.

Families took their toys outside of their homes and played with them at the seaside or in the park. Boating ponds were made in parks so that people could sail their toy boats and show them off to each other. Find the boat above, look at the label and write its height here Look at the pictures of children playing with their toy sailing boats. Find two ways they got rheir boats back from the middle of the pond.



TOY-MAKERS IN EUROPE From the mid-19th century new materials and manufacturing techniques revolutionized toy-making. The latest machines stamped, cut, rolled, folded and printed tinplate faster than ever before. This was essential to meet the rising demand for toys from a growing middle-class market. The heart of the toy-boat industry was continental Europe. Originally companies often made and sold small tinplate toys as a sideline to metal household goods, scientific equipment and optical instruments. These companies competed with each other, developing their skills and production methods to make ever-better toys. German makers came to dominate the market. With a reputation for high-quality toys, they set the standards for toy boats and exported them around the world. French manufacturers had a similar impact during this period but Britain, Italy, Spain and Russia also had important toy-boat industries.

As toy boats became more popular and more people wanted to buy them, companies began to make them in large numbers. Toy designs were developed with customers in mind, to ensure the sale of as many as possible. Many British toy boats were inspired by speedboats and racing boats, as these were always popular. Find the speedboat below in the exhibition and a real speedboat called Miss Britain III in the Museum. Name one similarity and one difference between them.

MECHANICAL MARVELS In an attempt to improve the speed and reliability of their products, toy-makers experimented with using the newest technologies to propel them. Innovative ways of powering toy boats were used to attract buyers and give these miniature craft an authenticity which mirrored their full-size counterparts. The toy boat’s mechanism – whether steam, electricity or clockwork – often remained a secret, hidden deep inside the toy. Other boats made an educational virtue of their mechanism, providing access to it by having a removable superstructure or opening flaps or hatches.

Toy-makers used different ways to power toy boats. Make a sound for each toy boat propelled in these ways:


a twisted rubber band unwinds and makes the boat’s propeller work


a steam engine within the boat powers the boat’s propeller


the wind hits the sails and moves the boat


an electric motor powered by a battery makes the boat’s propeller work

SELLING TOY BOATS The mass production of goods, including toys, helped shape the retail industry and the shopping habits of the middle-classes. Shops needed to compete for the attention of consumers. They used large and attractive window displays showcasing new products. This was only made possible by the development of plate-glass. More toys meant more competition and advertising became an important means of communication between retailer and buyer. Advertisements, mainly in catalogues and magazines, consciously catered to the aspirations of children and the emotions of their parents. By the mid-20th century changing tastes among children and decline in the Navy’s influence on British society meant less demand for toy boats. The introduction of radio-control technology in the 1950s sparked a revival in transport toys. However, the coming of cheap plastics meant that traditional toy boats made of tin became the preserve of specialists and collectors.

To sell toy boats, toy-makers used advertising and packaging to persuade adults and children to buy them. Find the toy boat above. Fill in the details that are missing from its box. Add anything extra that would persuade you to buy it.




Fold the lower edge of the uppermost layer upwards. Turn it over and do the same to the back.

Gently pull the top parts of the diamond outwards to form the shape of the boat



Take an A4 sheet of paper and fold it in half. Open out.

Pull the sides out and flatten to form a diamond. Tuck in any loose flaps.

Flatten well to crease all folds and open out slighty.



Fold it again in the opposite direction.

Fold the bottom point of the uppermost layer up to meet the top point. Turn it over and repeat.

Your completed boat will float on the water and can be decorated with pencils or crayons.



Fold the two upper corners down to the centre line.

Pull the sides of the triangle out carefully and flatten to form a diamond.


Monday 26 July to Tuesday 31 August


Toys through the ages: grandparents’ day

Come on board and explore the different parts of a boat through fun activities for young children.

Bring your grandparents to this great day out. Ask them about the toys they played with as children and compare them with yours.

Holiday Tuesdays

Drop-in workshop 10.30 – 12.30 | 13.00 – 15.00 Suitable for under-5s

Thursdays 12–26 August

Drop-in workshop 11.30 – 13.30 | 14.00 – 16.00

Mechanical Marvels

Holiday Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays Explore the exhibition and find out about the propulsion used in toy boats to make your own working boat.

Drop-in workshop 11.30 – 13.30 | 14.00 – 16.00 Suitable for all ages


Holiday Mondays and Fridays Set sail on a journey of discovery with interactive performances that will transport you through the ages.

12.00 | 13.00 | 14.00 | 15.00 Suitable for ages 6+

DREAM BOAT Monday 26 July to Tuesday 31 August

Make your own extravagant dream boat.

Drop-in workshop 11.30 – 13.30 | 14.00 – 16.00 Suitable for all ages v

Family gallery tour


Holiday Tuesdays and Thursdays Why did sailing toy boats in parks become a popular family activity? Get up close to sailing boats, find clues in the exhibition and log your ideas using a range of materials to draw and write.

11.30 – 13.30 | 14.00 – 16.00 Suitable for all ages

Wednesdays 4–25 August

Meet a curator and find out about the hidden stories behind toy boats.

Gallery tour 14.00 Suitable for ages 6+


Become a Member and discover your Museum. Members support the work of the National Maritime Museum and enjoy free tickets, discounts and privileged access. Find out more at or call 020 8312 6678.


Images reproduced by kind permission of the MusĂŠe national de la Marine, Keystone/Eyedea/Camera Press London, Ron McCrindell, Graham Andrews and Meccano

Toy Boats Gallery Guide and Children's Activity Trail  

A beautifully nostalgic A5 pocket gallery guide and children’s activity trail for the Temporary Exhibition, Toy Boats. Designed to mimic an...

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you