Nice things come in small packages …. Dinky Toys

A collection of 73 Dinky Toy aeroplanes acquired by City of Edinburgh Council in 1995 with an NFA grant of £750

In 1995 the National Fund for Acquisitions helped the Museum of Childhood in Edinburgh to purchase a collection of 73 Dinky Toy aeroplanes representing the range of models manufactured, from the earliest incarnations in the 1930s through to the 1970s. You may be more familiar with miniature cars or trains than aeroplanes which today are less widely available as collectors’ items.


Collection of Dinky toy aeroplanes

Collection of Dinky toy aeroplanes

What can we learn from a small toy? It certainly isn’t just a collector’s piece or a discarded toy from a bygone era. Even an apparently simple toy can reflect social and economic change. Childhood and the role of children in family life were evolving during the twentieth century when these toys were manufactured. Children were no longer confined to the nursery or sent out to work. Instead the focus was on their need to be entertained, educated and nurtured. A growing proportion of parents and children had more spare cash to spend on leisure time and non-essentials such as comics and toys. The expectation of what children would get for birthdays or Christmas increasingly grew as the twentieth century progressed and toy manufacture and advertising grew as a result.

The first Dinky toys were manufactured after small model trains had become popular. Meccano, of which Dinky was a trading name, already produced trains and cars but as aircraft developed and the Second World War began the company also manufactured aeroplanes. The first aeroplanes were civilian models but as the 1930s and 1940s progressed military models were introduced with camouflage paint, and jet aircraft emerged in the 1950s.

Flying boat and jet Tornado

Flying boat and jet Tornado

Methods of manufacture also reflected changes in technology and science. The Dinky toys were made using the die cast technique, a development from the earlier tin plate toys. The place of manufacture again provides an insight into a bigger picture of Britain as a country with high levels of manufacture in the middle of the twentieth century. In the 1980s the manufacture of Dinky toys moved to Hong Kong. By then the company was no longer owned by Meccano but the conglomerate American company General Mills Toys.

NASA space shuttle

NASA space shuttle

How are these toys relevant today? Miniature aeroplanes and their counterparts in cars and trains were definitely gender specific and aimed at boys, which leads us to the dynamic debate concerning gender specific toys which is ongoing today. Barbie, tea sets and Hello Kitty for girls, Action Man, toy cars, trains and aeroplanes for boys; even in the 21st century children are being steered toward particular forms of play by adults represented by both manufacturers and purchasers. In 2014 booksellers and publishers are beginning to stop marketing books specifically ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. Perhaps this is a trend that will continue?

Lyn Wall
Museum of Childhood

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