In the predawn hours of an eerily quiet Saturday morning, Robert E. Lee’s Virginians, Indians, and Knights formed a formidable defensive line around the Space Station, manned by several dozen Moon Men. To their immediate front, the enemy lied in wait. Composed of American Colonials and GI’s, Cowboys, British Soldiers, and a platoon of Panzer Tanks, they waited for the signal to attack. The opposing armies would fight for every square inch of the carpeted floor that day. My favorite toy soldiers were the last to fall, dying triumphantly in battle.
The Pharaohs’ Toy Soldiers
Such a scene was commonplace in my adolescence years. As it turns out, my childhood fascination with army men wasn’t anything new. In fact, toy soldiers have existed since the time of the Pharaohs, having been discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs. First made of stone, clay and wood, then by tin, lead, and iron, it wasn’t until after WW2 that the iconic plastic army men entered the consciousness of boys everywhere.
As early as the 1730s, tin soldiers were produced in Germany. Known to collectors as “flat” toy soldiers, they were made by molding metal between two pieces of slate, producing flat, two-dimensional tin soldiers. A century later, the Parisian firm of Mignot (still in existence today under the nameCBG Mignot), began to manufacture small, solid-cast lead figures, painted in colorful uniforms. Expensive, they failed to appeal to the masses but Mignot did manage to establish a healthy market serving the wealthier families of the era.
A Mignot box set of Napoleonic French Voltigeurs.
Lead to Plastic
In 1893, the British toy company William Britain, introduced the manufacturing method of hollow casting. A hollow cast soldier is cast in metal, usually a lead alloy, which cools and sets as it touches the mold; the excess molten metal is poured out leaving a hollow figure. This process revolutionized the production of toy soldiers, making them lighter and cheaper that those made by companies such as Mignot. The hollow cast toy soldier began to catch on with children, regardless of their socioeconomic status.
A William Britains toy soldiers set, “The Cameronians”, or “Scottish Rifles”.
In addition to the lead toy soldier, toy makers in Germany and Austria also produced soldiers using the “composition” method in which soldiers were molded from a mixture of sawdust and glue. These two forms of toy soldiers dominated the market until the arrival of the American firm, Bergen Toy & Novelty Co. (abbreviated, Beton) in 1938. Beton was the first American manufacturer to produce plastic toy soldiers. They were molded, painted, and sold in the same fashion as their lead counterparts.
A display case showing an assortment of William Britain’s hollow cast, lead soldiers.
After WW2, manufacturers turned to a no-thrills approach to toy soldier production, with non-painted plastic being the preferred medium. Children (i.e. their parents) soon gravitated to the inexpensive, unpainted plastic soldiers to build their armies.
During the 1950s, another American firm, Marx Toy Company, and its competitors, began producing inexpensive boxed toy soldier play-sets. Equipped with soldiers and accessories, the box-sets were mass marketed through brick-and-mortar retailers and the widely distributed Sears catalog.
1964 Sears catalog advertisement featuring a two page spread of British Lancers, Invasion Day, The Sands of Iwo Jima,, Fort Apache, and The Civil War, Blue and Gray Set!
Wounded Toy Soldiers
The toy soldier industry suffered three blows to its popularity between the 60s and 80s – (1) lead poisoning concerns, (2) anti-war sentiment, and (3) mothers!
Due to rising concerns of lead poisoning across the globe; and the passage of new laws banning the manufacture of toys containing lead, many of the leading metal toy soldier manufactures ceased production of metal and focused on plastic soldiers—William Britains being the most prominent to do so.
Ironically, the second blow came from America’s protracted involvement in the Vietnam War. American’s growing anti-war sentiment soured the public’s interest in military toys. Children’s toy interests soon shifted to action figures and the rise of video games in the late 1970s (Atari anyone?).
The third blow was delivered by mom! When Baby Boomers grew up and moved out, their “armies” were left behind. And as we all know, if you leave your “junk” at home, it’s likely to get tossed out by mom. And that’s exactly what happened. Moms gave the toys away or just outright tossed them in the trash. Or even worse, melted them all into the form of an army man fruit bow!
Plastic army men cleverly melted into the shape of a fruit bowl. Seriously mom?
During this time period, a few toy companies reintroduced “new” metal toy soldiers, made of pewter, antimony, and tin, to the market. While a better product in design and style than their lead predecessors, they were relegated to a rather niche collector market. Meanwhile, the market for plastic army men continued to shrink.
A Comeback Story
Remember those Baby Boomers? They never forgot (and some never forgave) their mothers for giving away, or tossing out, their cherished toy soldier collections. Now in their late 30s and early 40s, nostalgia blasted them like a rocket shot from the green army man’s bazooka. They were looking to rebuild their prized armies of toy soldiers!
Such longing for the past gave way to a resurgence of toy soldier collecting starting in the 1990s. Since that time, new manufacturers across the globe have jumped on the craze, creating new product lines that address every historical era.
Like most genres of collecting, the collectors themselves stoke the fires of interest and drive market demand. Toy soldier collector websites, online forums, eBay sellers and buyers, and specialty shops continue to thrive. Public sentiment has also shifted, thanks in large part to the Baby Boomer generation. Wanting their children to have the same experiences as they did growing up, many have helped their children (and grandchildren) construct armies of their own. In fact, I think I might have to challenge my daughter to a battle this Saturday.
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