From automations for the aristocracy to teddies for tiddly ones, take a peek at some of the world’s most famous toymakers.

​As one marvels at the medley of perfumed playthings in Penhaligon’s House of Toys, one can’t help but look back at the toymakers that came before. Discover the imaginative minds behind some of the most iconic toys of the 19th and 20th centuries, and reignite one’s passion for play.

Penhaligon's House of Toys


Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1759. Swiss clockmaker, Pierre Jaquet-Droz returns from Spain where he held audience with King Ferdinand VI. After receiving quite the sum of money (around two-thousand gold pistoles, in fact), Jaquet-Droz keeps pursuing his passion of clockmaking and mechanics. The result of his travails? A trio of sophisticated automata, doll-like machines named The Musician, The Draughtsman and The Writer. These contraptions caught the attention of many throughout Europe, including Marie Antoinette herself! Jaquet-Droz' clockmaking business boomed, and he cemented himself in history as one of the early pioneers of mechanics (and could we also say robotics?) that would later bring many a playful idea to life. Let them have toys, we say.


Liverpool-born Frank Hornby didn’t just stop at founding one British toy brand: no, the rascal founded three! How did such a playful empire come to fruition? Well, it all started with a makeshift toy crane made from perforated metal strips, all in the name of entertaining his young ones. The result? A toy that could be deconstructed as easily as it was put together, and after six years of experimentation, Mecanno was born in 1907. After the First World War, Hornby turned his attention to clockwork trains and gifted his last name to the company – one many of us are still familiar with. Another six years later and the bright spark had one last idea: miniature figures of station workers, sold by his third company, Dinky. Needless to say, Mecanno Limited because the biggest toy manufacturer in Britain for two decades.



One may be familiar with the rather cuddly creation of Margaret Steiff, but did you know it all started with a pincushion? Seamstress and toy factory-owner Margaret Steiff, born in 1847, once crafted a stuffed toy elephant out of a template for a pincushion (for really, who needs functionality over just plain ‘fun’?). And so, a line of plush animal toys was sewn to life: lions, tigers, and finally... bears, oh my! Margaret’s nephew, Richard Steiff,designed the world’s first bear with movable arms and legs, which made its debut at the Leipzig Toy Fair in 1902. How might one recognise one of these bears? Perhaps by the button sewn into its ear, a trademark reserved for all Steiff bears. Not long after, an American dealer order 3000 bears to be shipped to the States, and the rest, so they say, is history. But wherever did it acquire the name Teddy?


Curiously, at around the same time as the Steiffs (we’re talking mere months, dear reader), a married couple in New York also started stuffing toy bears. Morris and Rose Michtom’s inspiration? Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt. You see, the then-President refused to shoot a bear during a Mississippi hunting trip in 1902, and everybody in the Nation had something to say about this. The Michtoms, after hearing the news, created a ‘Teddy’s Bears’ sign for their shop window which attracted a lot of attention, as you’d imagine. After writing to the president for permission, the Michtom’s started manufacturing their very own teddy bears and other toys. So there you have it: two continents, two bears, two sides of the same coin.



Born and raised in Denmark with his twelve siblings, Ole Kirk Christiansen was a carpenter who invented one of the world’s most famous toys (is it any wonder, with such a large family?). When Christiansen’s carpentry business suffered during The Great Depression, he turned his attention to whittling wooden wonders for his customers; amongst these were toys, which sold above all else. The turmoil didn’t terminate there, and one bankruptcy and two factory fires later Christiansen swapped wood for plastic and created the Automatic Binding Brick in 1949, the predecessor to... drumroll please... the modern-day Lego bricks we all simply adore! The mind boggles when one thinks that there are now over 600 billion Lego bricks in existence, sparking imagination and joy just as much as Penhaligon’s own scents!


Who better to round off Penhaligon’s list of toymakers? The co-founder of Mattel and the inventor of Barbie, of course! Unless one has been living in a bubble devoid of the colour pink, you might know the plastic doll has made quite the impression this year. Yet what about the woman behind the doll? Handler had the rather revolutionary idea that young ladies playing with a grown-up doll might ponder the possibilities of adulthood a little more. And so in 1957, Barbie debuted in nothing more than a swimsuit, beginning her long and illustrious journey as a fashion icon and career model. As for her creator, Handler became embroiled in a scandalous lawsuit in the seventies, and then devoted her time to develop life-like prosthesis for women. As Barbie’s creator was oft heard saying, ‘I’ve lived my life from breast to breast.’

​ Now, play on we say!


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