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.