14th century: small clay dolls from Nuremberg are traded all over Europe
Could the doll makers in the free imperial city of Nuremberg in 1350 ever have imagined the heights that would be reached? Two of them, makers of medieval clay dolls, can already be found in the tax rolls for the city of Nuremberg in 1400. They were there right at the start of a tradition that has supplied the world with toys from Nuremberg. Soon woodturners, carpenters, casket makers, bismuth painters, tinsmiths, locksmiths and coppersmiths were involved in manufacturing toys. An early “craft industry” developed across the trades. It was said that “Nuremberg bric-a-brac goes far and wide” and there is evidence that toys were traded all across Europe. These were not just knick-knacks, either – true works of art also came from the imperial city, such as the lavishly furnished dolls’ houses produced in the 17th century. One magnificent example, the “Stromer Dolls’ House” with 15 rooms and more than 1,000 objects, can be marvelled at today in the Germanisches National Museum in Nuremberg.
Louis XIV, France’s Sun King, commissions an army of tin soldiers
Goldsmiths and silversmiths also benefited from the increased demand for toys. “One superb example is an army of several hundred soldiers, each standing around ten centimetres high, that were able to conduct military exercises using a sophisticated mechanical drive system”, writes Helmut Schwarz in an essay. The order for this army came during the 1660s from no less of a personage than Louis XIV (1638–1715), France’s Sun King and builder of the Palace of Versailles, who intended the tin soldiers as a gift for the heir to the throne. Tinsmiths, illustrators and copper and steel engravers provided their services as part of a joint effort to produce the tin figures. Nuremberg businessman Georg Hieronimus Bestelmeier saw his chance and issued an illustrated catalogue entitled the “Magazine of the Most Exquisite and Useful Toy Things” back in 1795 and sent it all over the empire. It was the toy trade’s first mail-order catalogue.
Industrialisation brings with it “explosive growth” – sheet metal comes into fashion
Mass production became increasingly important in the course of industrialisation. Around 400 people were working in the manufacturing of toys in Nuremberg in the 1860s. After complete freedom of enterprise was permitted in 1869, “explosive growth” began with the development of factory production (Schwarz). By 1895, there were already 1,366 people employed in the countless businesses within Nuremberg’s toy industry. Around ten years later, this was said to have risen to 8,000. 243 different toy companies were registered in 1914. In addition to changed production methods, metal replaced wood and paper as the main material used. The toys reflected the new age: trains, steam engines, movable figures – a whole “world of sheet metal” was created.
Rise and fall of toy manufacturing in and around Nuremberg
The toy industry is just one example of an unprecedented period of expansion in Nuremberg, with the city becoming the “industrial heart” of Bavaria in around 1900. The company Nürnberger Metallwarenfabrik Gebrüder Bing AG alone employed 2,700 and subsequently 4,000 people. Its goods were exported all over the world.
“Overall, around 50,000 people were employed in the toy industry in the German Empire in 1903. Some three quarters of all goods produced were exported and around 90 percent of all German toys were manufactured in the regions around Nuremberg and Sonneberg (the centre of wooden toy production)” (Urs Latus, p. 31). “World War I ended the ‘golden age’ of the Nuremberg toy industry [...] The switch to armaments production [...] brought the manufacture of toys in Nuremberg to a virtual standstill” (Schwarz). There was an upturn in the twenties, reflected in the successes of the Schuco tin toy brand (Schreyer & Co). The Great Depression brought with it the next painful cut, with the world’s largest toymaker – Bing of Nuremberg – having to file for bankruptcy in 1932. Many Jewish toy entrepreneurs had their assets confiscated or were murdered or expelled when the National Socialist Party came to power. By the time the war ended, half of all toy factories in Franconia had been destroyed.
Nuremberg becomes the meeting place of the international toy world
Given the scale of this catastrophe, the recovery during the years of Germany’s “economic miracle” was surprisingly rapid. The value of toy exports rose from 8 to 100 million marks between 1948 and 1953. Schuco (800 employees) became Europe’s largest toy manufacturer. In the early post-war years, Nuremberg producers also pulled off a coup that is still providing momentum to the industry today: the toy manufacturers that had previously exhibited at the Leipzig Spring Fair decided in autumn 1949 to set up their own toy fair in Nuremberg. “351 exhibitors came to the first exhibition at Wieseler Haus near the city park in 1950. Today, the Spielwarenmesse in Nuremberg is the world’s leading fair for toys, hobbies and leisure, attracting approximately 2,800 exhibitors and more than 65,000 trade visitors from over 130 countries”, summarised Ernst Kick, who has been responsible for the fair since 2002 as CEO of Spielwarenmesse eG. But the Nuremberg metropolitan region is not just second to none as a trade fair venue. It is also home to well-known toy manufacturers, such as Playmobil in Zirndorf, near Nuremberg, as well as the Bruder company and Simba Dickie Group in the neighbouring city of Fürth. These Nuremberg-based manufacturers have meanwhile expanded beyond the Franconian capital. “Our production facilities are located in countries such as Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the UK, Thailand and the Czech Republic”, explained Simba Dickie Group press officer Isabel Weishar. And it’s not unusual for a toy to include parts from nearly all production sites. This also demonstrates how globalised the toy business has become!
Nuremberg as a toy region remains a magnet for the industry
The success of the toy companies in the Nuremberg region has also been recognised by DVSI, the German Association of the Toy Industry with 230 members, which moved its headquarters from Stuttgart to Nuremberg on 1 January 2015: “We discussed Berlin and Nuremberg”, said DVSI Managing Director Ulrich Brobeil, “but the Franconians won out in the end, being home to the Spielwarenmesse, the headquarters of the VEDES purchasing cooperative and the largest German toy manufacturer.”
About the author
Peter Budig studied Protestant theology, history and political science. He worked as a freelance journalist, headed up the editorial department of a large advertising paper in Nuremberg for ten years and was the editor of Nuremberg’s Abendzeitung newspaper. He has been freelancing again since 2014 as a journalist, book author and copywriter. Storytelling is absolutely his favourite form.