The manufacture of Fernand Martin mechanical toys in 1902

This article is published in the May 2020 issue of the ATW Antique Toy World magazine.

The translation of a French article about the manufacture of mechanical tin toys from Fernand Martin in the late 1800s and early 1900s, written by Paul Peltier and published in 1902 in the magazine “La Vie Illustree”

Magazin from my own collection


There are many toys about the upcoming October 10th (1902) Exhibition, organized by the small manufacturers of these tiny and delicious things, whose appearance on the family table will provoke the joyful laugh of enthusiastic toddlers.
This exhibition, moreover, is the reedition or, if we wind, the extension of the competition organized by M. Lepine, prefect of police, last year.
The moment, therefore, seems to have come to introduce our readers to the mysteries of the manufacture of the mechanical toy, and to reveal to them the secrets of those curious arcana from which articulate blacksmiths and little merchants pushing their cars on the sidewalks conscientiously.
The mechanical toy, as a very popular toy, very wide spread, very loved, is a very modern invention.
The difficulty & indeed, It’s much less a matter of moving a character than of being able to make this articulate and animated personage very cheaply.

It is certain that, in a pinch, the automaton of Vaucanson can be considered like a toy, but certainly the hawkers of the time could not have sold it for some grounds at the time of the New Year’s Day.
Thanks to the kindness of Mr. Fernand Martin, who has attached his name to the cheap mechanical toy industry in France.
We will introduce the reader in this world of the toddlers where articulated “Eves” and automatic “Adams” wait for the moment to leave their paradise quickly.
Like medicine and literature, the toy industry has its specialists.

The main specialties are:
1 Mechanical toys, in a general way.
2 The dolls, these cute little creatures with eternally pink cheeks, eternally constant heart, which not only delight the girls, but still know how to inspire, if need be, the novelists- Cosette’s dolls: Miserables, doll dresses from Dickens- like the musicians – the Nuremberg Doll, • the Infant’s Dolls, and, a few years ago, the Doll.
3 The lead soldiers; here we fall in the operetta, with the lead soldier of Mire Nitouche
4 Railways, racing games, etc., etc.

But it is the mechanical toys that are most interesting.
The first toys of this kind were created around 1879.
Their little “soul”, which no Paul Bourget will ever try to analyze, was essentially composed of an inert motor pelit composed of twisted rubber wire with escape wheel.
One of the worst “hurts”, none of which will ever be analyzed, was essentially a small engine, composed of a twisted rubber wire with an escape wheel.
It was obviously not very complicated, but as for the egg of Christopher Columbus, it was all about thinking about it !!
It was first the le Poisson Nageur, then the Les Forgerins Infatigables, Les Scieurs, Le Suiveur Endiablé, who delighted the Boulevards. Another invention, very curious and amusing, made its appearance around 1883.
It was – said without wanting to do the least course of mechanics! – a steering wheel whose shaft operated on two wheels.
This engine, very simple as we see, was first applied to the loco-motive road that – I call the fathers! – made a sensation.
There was much talk about it at the Tuileries ( formal gardens next to the Louvre in Paris, the gardens are all that remain of the Tuileries Palace, a royal residence begun in 1564 and burned down in 1871 during the Commune of Paris.) the old five-year-olds discussed it with interest in Luxembourg, and the little world of Parc Monceau was very satisfied.

Then came the Les Valseurs, Les Pompiers, Les Duellistes. In 1888, the Deliveryman and the Pousse-Pousse had a big success, which reached its peak during the Exhibition of 1889.
Then we see the L’Autruche, Le Cab, Le Perroquet, Le Pêcheur á la Linge, etc., etc.
Around 1894, a new series of little automatons appeared: “Ma Portière”, Le Petit Décrotteur, the Violoniste, La Blanchisseuse.

Finally, in 1900, we have the Le Pochard and the Le Bamboula.
The mechanical toy industry is also inspired by the news, as an in-depth review of the end of the year, so that among the recent creations we have seen: the L’Agent with the white baton, the Le Vieux Marcheur, a delicate allusiun to the success of the Varieties, Le Chinois, finally the Le Boer and the L’Anglais.

We will consider, in the photographs attached, (photo above) a bloody meeting between the L’Anglais and the Le Boer, and (photo below) a suggestive group of agents, policemen and gendarmes: a true International Police Congress!

Finally, as the latest creations, the Le Clown Marchant, walking on the hands, and the Le Petit Pianiste whose fingers agile and tiny.
He performs fantastic scales on a diminutive piano, and one can judge the marvels of skill and ingenuity which must be displayed in order to obtain a similar toy for a few pence, all the more so, oh joy! really what’s going to be saying Reyer? …
Needless to say, the division of work reigns supreme in mechanical toy factories.
First of all, it is the forge, where workers do all that one could call the “big work”, because everything is relative.

Then comes the welding, where the little automaton will begin to feel the clever stroking of feminine fingers.
From there, we move to the manufacture of “skeletons”.
This macabre expression refers to the assembly of all the parts of wire and metal that make up the body of the character.
Then it’s dressing up, and really this part of Mr. Martin’s factory is quite reminiscent of the workshop of a great couturier, whatever Doucet for dolls! consists, for the fingers, always feminins, to illuminate quickly and well the hands of the Le Bamboula or the trowel of the Vieux Marcheur.
Finally, the filling: this is where we put the last hand to the little toy, where, for example, we stick the piece of music in front of the eyes and the pianist is incredibly enthusiastic.

And when our babies, already ferocious, tear the tunic or the bodice to see “what’s inside”, they will certainly suspect the amount of work and pain that will have cost their toy a few French cents !
In fact, it is thought that to make toys like the ones we are talking about and sell them cheaply, we need personnel and tools of extraordinary complexity, and our readers have realized this.
The equipment is so multiple, and the meeting of raw materials relatively so long, that the French manufacturer has time to cast a good part of his invention, before the German manufacturer finds the opportunity to counterfeit and sell himself.
It is, indeed, in Germany, the classic country of the Nuremberg doll, that the French mechanical toy is pillaged with the greatest cynicism.
There are, it seems, in Germany only two manufacturers of mechanical toys who do not copy our objects ! …

We were talking about the tools and personnel of a big toy factory mechanical. Some typical details will serve to fix the ideas.
Do we know how much the house we have visited employs dressers, who, as their name implies, are exclusively employed in re-covering the skeletons of iron wire, hidden in the small chest of tin plate? It are thirty dressers!
These thirty dressers, some of whom work in the workshop, the others at home, can dress up to three thousand figs a day.
In addition to the dressers, the toy houses still use machine-made stitches.
To dress ten thousand little “ bonhommes”, it takes six hundred meters of a cloth having 80 cm wide.

Another detail borrowed, no longer from the mechanical toy industry, but from that of small rifles.
The tiny arms, which sell for about fifteen cent, are provided with a shoulder strap, attached to a small staple nailed to the edge of the butt.
To obtain these staples, we use a machine that can drill in a minute a zinc plate a meter long: well! the cuts, the small trimmings that fall by the thousands, are precisely the staples.
This detail shows how frighteningly rapid it is to satisfy consumption.

In Paris there are in 1902, about 25,000 toy workers employed by 500 employers.
Not included in this number, of course, watchmakers, molders, seamstresses, etc., who are used, but who are not dedicated to the toy.
Men can earn 5 francs the piece, about 50 francs per day; women 3 francs.
The work is done either by the pieces, or by the day.
We see that the toy – at least the mechanical toy – is not what a vain people thinks.
It’s not just “the joy of children and the tranquility of parents”.
It is also one of the objects on which our national industry has made its mark, and from this point of view the public can not be too interested in it.

All workshop images are insights from the Fernand Martin factory in 1902

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