Cotton-reel tanks

In the dim-and-distant days before computer games, children made their own entertainment – and sometimes their own toys too. An old favourite was the cotton-reel tank, made from cheap materials that were then readily available – a wooden cotton reel, an elastic [or rubber] band, a piece of wax candle and a couple of matchsticks. Reels for cotton thread were once made of wood, not plastic, and because most families did a great deal of sewing at home (mending and making clothes), empty cotton reels were abundant. With little money to spend on commercially produced toys, children would use their craft skills to turn them into military tanks.

Cotton Reel Tank ComponentsMaterials for a tank


A disc of wax was sliced off the candle and a hole carefully made in the centre, where the wick was. Through this hole was threaded an elastic band, one end of which was held in place by a wooden matchstick. The protruding loop of elastic was threaded through the hole down the centre of the cotton reel and secured in place at the other end by half a matchstick. When the longer matchstick was ‘wound up’, the so-called tank would crawl along until the elastic band unwound.


All kinds of refinements were added. The ‘wheels’ (the rims of the cotton reel) were frequently notched to give the tank extra grip and stop it skidding, and the matchstick that made contact with the surface could be replaced with a slightly longer stick. The half-matchstick that anchored the elastic band at the other end of the cotton reel had a tendency to slip and reduce the tension, making the tank stop prematurely, but this was cured with glue or a tiny nail or pin hammered in to stop it moving. The final touch for a really successful and very mobile tank was a coat of paint or painted design.

Cotton Reel TankA cotton-reel tank


Even a single cotton-reel tank was a fascinating toy, since it was self-propelled. Particularly if notched, it would crawl over small obstacles, and with several tanks races could be run, ‘trials’ held over obstacle courses, and even battles fought. Like most simple toys, it was limited only by a child’s imagination. Although sometimes called ‘tractors’, they were generally referred to as ‘tanks’. But when was the cotton-reel tank invented? Did such toys emulate the battlefield tanks of the First World War? Children certainly played with them during the Second World War and the immediate post-war period, but by the 1960s, growing affluence and the increasingly sophisticated toys available in shops, along with other distractions such as television, made them an old-fashioned novelty.


Another factor that led to the demise of the cotton-reel tank was that the reels themselves were evolving. With the arrival of cheap plastics, cotton reels were no longer made from wood. Initially, these plastic reels were skeuomorphs – imitations of an object in a totally different material. The first plastic reels look just like wooden ones, both in shape and colour, so that it is difficult to tell them apart at a quick glance. Once the transition to plastic was made, reels of different shapes were introduced. In the picture below, the group of seven reels on the left are late 19th- and early 20th-century wooden reels, the two in the centre are early plastic reels, and the three on the right are more modern plastic forms.

 Cotton ReelsThe evolving form of the cotton reel, from earliest (left) and latest (right)


Cotton reels for use in the home seem to have been invented in the mid-19th century. Before then, cotton thread for sewing was sold in hanks or skeins and was wound on to a winder or into a ball before use. Large wooden reels – called bobbins or spools – were used only in textile factories. An industry grew up supplying bobbins for the textile factories, and Stott Park Bobbin Mill near Lake Windermere in Cumbria is now preserved as an English Heritage property, with displays showing the history and processes of bobbin making. Stott Park Mill was built in 1835, initially to supply bobbins for textile factories, but later it produced domestic cotton reels and wooden spools for other materials, such as wire. The mill, which continued in production until 1971, now provides a fascinating glimpse of Victorian factory life and is well worth a visit.