Collecting Vintage Toy Soldiers

Collecting Vintage Toy Soldiers

This article won’t even be able to scratch the surface of the history of toy soldiers. Through the many decades there have been hundreds of different makers and millions of soldiers manufactured.

Probably the most well known are the vintage toy soldiers manufactured by William Britain Ltd of the United Kingdom. Prior to 1893 the company had manufactured some of the early mechanical toys including a sailor who tipped and put on his cap when a coin was placed on his metal collection plate. These early mechanical toys were expensive to manufacture and the market was limited.

William Britain Jr. had been experimenting with various methods to manufacture soldier figures made of metal. The major area of interest for young boys in the period was soldier figures since this was the period which historians refer to as the "Era of Queen Victoria’s Little Wars," the time when the "sun never set on the British Empire". The concept of mass producing soldiers, and sailors through the process of hollow metal casting became the avenue by which the Britain Company found a major market. The first figure created in 1893 was a mounted English Life Guard manufactured in a 1/32 scale.

Above: A 1972 Britains catalog which featured soldiers, zoo and farm figures and sets.

As their popularity grew, the company developed more and more different types of soldiers. The company began to produce soldiers and sailors and airmen once they came into the picture. Figures of specific units; included The Cold Stream Guards, The Black Watch, The Seaforth Highlanders, and others. The figures were painted in accurate uniform colours, even down to the plumes on their hats. Sets were sold in boxes and for many years the front of the box was printed with "Armies of the World", the unit name was printed on the side of the box. Later, sets were boxed with the name of the unit on the front - Royal Army Medical Corps., Royal Regiment of Artillery, and others. Besides the regular factory workers, the company employed individuals in the community to paint the figures. Women would receive boxes of the metal figures at their home and would paint them. When the finished ones were picked up, a new set of figures would be delivered, in a real cottage industry. Generally there were eight figures in a box, seven soldiers and one officer figure. The majority of the infantry figures were in a slope position with their rifle on the left side. Some sets are of infantry charging and others in a marching formation with their rifles hanging down. One nice set of infantry charging has the figures wearing gas masks.

The company manufactured many types of accessories to assist the infantry or troops on horseback in battle such as artillery, wagons, trucks and one neat piece is an entire barrage balloon unit from World War II. This set is one of the most expensive sets to acquire since the balloon was made of rubber and over the years surviving balloons have become difficult to find.

Every good war needs an enemy and the company manufactured Arabs, Zulu, Beja warriors and others. The most popular items have become the boxed sets of military and police bands that the company has issued over its time. In addition, the company did make popular sets of farms, zoos, and the circus so not all the figures were connected to war activities. The company has undergone many changes, but still issues high quality sets. One new set is of a World War II RAF crew climbing into their bomber.

German companies such as Elastolin manufactured composition soldiers on a small metal frame and wood material pressed on to it. Figures of Adolf Hitler, and Goering were made with large reviewing stands to place them on. German Elastolin soldiers marched by - a scene right out of the newsreels of the day. German fighting troops were made and marketed. The company manufactured battery operated machine guns to make the battle more realistic. Since the end of World War II, German companies have remained out of the manufacture of military figures and focus on cowboys, Indians and others not connected to the war.

Minot of France manufactured high quality sets that, like Britains, were geared to represent specific French fighting units. Cavalry, alpine troops, and machine gun crews were among the types made. They are beautifully painted and boxed surrounded by the old type of excelsior packing material. To provide an idea of cost, my sets were purchased in the late 1960’s. A box of infantry was $15 and cavalry $25.

In the North American market toy soldiers were sold through the 5&10 cent stores. Many of the figures became known as Dime Store Soldiers. The majority of the companies were concentrated in the New Jersey, New York City area. Barclay, Manoil, Grey Iron, and others were popular makes. They were larger than Britain’s figures, but still made of hollow metal. Dime Store figures were sold in the 1920’s and 1930’s and if there was stock left, during World War II.

Above: Above: Britains Vintage Toy Lead Soldiers, 9 Coldstream Guards, 4 Riflemen, 3 Buglers, 2 Axemen

Interesting figures were sold by the Barclay Company. The soldiers, based on a World War I model, all had a tin helmet which was held onto the head with a metal pin. Other companies manufactured a similar figure, but the tin helmet was glued on. Needless to say many figures exist with no helmet. The soldiers stood 31/4" tall. Interesting ones are a soldier looking into an artillery range finder, one letting a carrier pigeon out of a crate, a journalist sitting and typing his story to send to the newspaper, and a camera man filming the action. If one was wounded there was a pretty nurse to tend your wounds. One set of valuable figures was a special edition given out at the American Legion Convention. Each soldier is carrying a different flag.

The Auburn Company was different in that it made its soldiers of rubber, but in the same poses as metal ones, including a man dropping a shell into a mortar. The company had one of the earliest licences to make Disney toys. One of their most famous Disney toys is Mickey Mouse wearing a fire hat and driving the fire truck.

With the end of World War II, metal figures began to disappear from 5&10 cent stores to be replaced by plastic figures in the bins. Barclays manufactured the last ones which became known as pod soldiers, this was due to fact that the soldier’s foot ended in a round pod on the bottom which supported him to stand. The figures were smaller than the pre World War II ones and had larger helmets. They appeared as World War II or Korean War soldiers. The other factor that contributed to the disappearance of metal soldiers was the knowledge of the impact of the lead paint on individuals. Workers had painted thousands of figures and children had played with them.

One by product of World War II was the use of plastics on a large scale. Toy companies began to switch over to the new material. The Beton Toy and Novelty Company of Carlstadt, New Jersey became one of the leaders. Cowboys and Indians were made of hard plastic, but the main line of toys was soldiers. Soldier figures carrying machine gun ammo boxes, firing machine guns, throwing a hand grenade, a bugler, an infantry man with rifle at the ready.

The major Canadian producer of plastic soldiers was the Reliable Toy Company of Toronto. They were famous for dolls, including the Eaton’s Beauty Doll which was issued annually. Many of the soldiers manufactured by the Reliable Toy Company resemble the same poses as the Beton figures, the only difference being the Reliable name stamped on the back of the soft plastic figure. According to Mr. Samuels, son of the founder of Reliable, many Canadian and American toy company families were related and the moulds were swapped back and forth. In my collection of Reliable Toys is a generic cowboy figure on a horse. That same figure was manufactured by Ideal in the US and sold as Hopalong Cassidy. Ideal had paid for the rights to use the name whereas Reliable employed the same mould, but had not paid for naming rights. An interesting boxed set of Canadian figures is entitled; Canadian Commandoes. Wow, not just soldiers, but commandoes and what an image is created of that fighting group.

The famous Marx Toy Company of New York City manufactured soldiers that were issued in their many popular playsets. In the 1960’s the company manufactured large plastic toy soldier figures. These included Russians, US infantry and with the landing on the moon large astronaut figures. The newer Marx figures were manufactured in either Hong Kong or Mexico.

For the past 20 years 99% of soldier sets that are marketed, including those by Britain and other new companies, have become more upscale with a price to match. It seems that soldiers are no longer a mass marketed item to reach a large audience that plays with them. Today the market is geared and focused on the adult collector who displays the pieces on shelves or in famous battle scenes, but is very careful with the figures.

There are many collector organizations and magazines on the market for the collector of toy soldiers. One is Old Toy Collector which has been in operation since the 1970’s. Toy Soldier and Model Magazine which has new items on the market and displays of collections. If Britain’s are your thing there is a Britain’s Collector Club which provides information on new releases as well as older sets. If plastic soldiers are your interest then Playset Magazine is for you. This magazine is focused on plastic figures including space ones of the 1950’s into the present.

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