Antique Toy Boats: A Nautical Trip Down Memory Lane

Updated April 7, 2022
Boy Playing with Toy Ocean Liner

For many, antique toy boats invoke images of sprawling, bucolic Sundays with the metropolitan elite's offspring, spending hours watching their miniature wooden ships travel between from one side of the pond to the other. For other people, toy boats call forward childhood memories of reading about the mouse Stuart Little and his tumultuous travels on a model boat. But, it's because of people's personal connections to these centuries old playthings that people have made an art out of collecting them.

Centuries of Toy Boats to Choose From

You might've realized, but people have been carving natural materials to look like ships for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence has uncovered wooden toy boats from centuries ago; one such thousand-year-old boat was recently uncovered in a filled-in well on a small farmstead in Norway. As it seems, children have always wanted to float things on the water, and they've done their best to craft toys to fit the bill.

Boys wading at the edge of a lake, playing with their toy sailboats

Yet, as building model boats show, these youthful toys aren't just meant for childhood, and collectors of all sorts enjoy adding a decorated boat to their collections. Undoubtedly, toy boats were really prominent during the 19th century and into the 20th century, making those 200 years the period of time that you're most likely to find examples of these boats from. Similarly, as the 19th century turned into the 20th century, and the development of cheap materials and production methods overtook manufacturing, toy boats became less decorative and precious, making them less collectible as well.

Antique and Vintage Toy Boats to Collect

When it comes to old toy boats, collectors tend to gravitate to two specific eras: wooden toy boats from the 19th and early 20th centuries and the brightly colored tin and plastic toy boats of the pre and post-war period. Of course, given that these toys were meant to be recreational aids for child's play, a lot of them were manufactured. Chances are high that you've got one of these toy boats shoved in a box somewhere that your grandfather gave you from his own stash.

Antique Wood Toy Boats

Antique wooden toy boats are the oldest type of toy boats out there. Usually made in the image of famous boats from the period, these ships were typically painted and either hand carved for machine-cut. Although wooden boats were still produced after the early aughts, the most valuable ones were made during the mid to late-19th century. Additionally, a few of the major manufacturers who built these boats include:

Little boys play with boats and a family takes a stroll by the Serpentine on a sunny Autumn day
  • Meier
  • Basset Lowke
  • Hornby
  • Marklin
  • Sutcliffe
  • Bing

Vintage Tin Toy Boats

As child labor laws and better wages helped create a space for middle and lower-class children to be able to have recreational time, toy manufacturers turned to making their products out of cheaper materials. This meant that they could get their products out to the public at a quicker pace, garnering greater profits. Toy boats were one of these popular toys that got this treatment, and soon toy boats made out of aluminum and tin flooded the marketplace.

Saturnia transatlantic ship

Typically, these toy boats are smaller than wooden boats, being modeled after types of boats like speed boats and skiffs. However, they're just as detailed in their decoration as their wooden counterparts are, and were frequently paired with candlestick, wind-up, and battery-powered motors. Usually, these metal boats were crafted between the 1940s-1960s.

Vintage Plastic Toy Boats

When it comes to vintage plastic toy boats, bright yellow and chunky Fisher Price boats probably come to mind first. While Fisher Price wasn't the only brand to make plastic toy boats, most other brands' boats were shaped very similarly to theirs. These boats became popular during the 1960s and are the simplest and most cartoonish in design. Out of all three major types, plastic toy boats are by far the least collectible and least valuable since they were made in such an abundance and for a particularly young target audience.

1960s Baby Inner Tube Beach Toy Boat

What Antique and Vintage Toy Boats Are Worth

Although collectors have their preferences when it comes to which of these old toy boats that they're willing to spend money on, the consensus is that the extravagant model boats from the 19th century are the cream of the crop. In contrast, mid-century and later plastic toy boats are definitely the least valuable of those for sale.

If you're thinking about selling or buying one of these toy boats, here are a few that've recently come to market to give you an idea of what to expect:

Places to Find Antique and Vintage Toy Boats

The internet has become the single most valuable resource for antique collectors, as it allows them to hunt down the perfect finds from the comfort of their home. No matter what kind of collection you have, there are usually great resources online, and this is particularly true for antique and vintage toy boats.

  • Scherbak Ship Models - Scherbak Ship Models is a company that makes professionally built model replicas of modern cruise ships, sailboats, ocean liners, cargo ships and warships. They also build replicas of famous ocean liners from the late 19th and 20th centuries. Scherbak buys and sells antique model ocean liners as well, and some of the types of antique ship models and toy boats you can find on Scherbak's site include battleships, submarines and an old Indian rowing canoe.
  • Gasoline Alley Antiques - Gasoline Alley Antiques has different categories you can browse through related to antique boats such as pre and post World War II toy boats, live steam and putt-putt boats, sailboats, model kits, submarines, diecast, plastic and other miscellaneous nautical memorabilia.

Don't Jump Ship on These Antiques

You don't have to be a collector to appreciate the whimsical nautical energy that antique and vintage toy boats bring to any space that they're in. Whether you want a heartier choice to let the kids in your life play with or a massive model boat to sit above your fireplace, you shouldn't jump ship on the next great deal on an antique toy boat that you find.

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Antique Toy Boats: A Nautical Trip Down Memory Lane