Thoughts Beyond Counterpane – On Collecting Toy Soldiers, Civilians and More

Thoughts Beyond Counterpane – On Collecting Toy Soldiers, Civilians, and More – The Journal of Antiques and Collectibles – December 2002

By Arley L. Pett

Many adults have fond memories of their favorite childhood toys. For many, it is lead soldiers as expressed quite eloquently by Robert Louis Stevenson in his poem “The Land of Counterpane” in part “I watched my leaden soldiers go, with different uniforms and drills”.

Traditionally “toy soldiers” are just that; toys and soldiers. They are generally military figures painted in limited detail with a glossy finish and meant to be played with as toys. They were boy’s toys from the old days!

Originally, these figures were produced and sold in Germany, France and England by companies like Heyde, Mignot and Britains. Heyde was the most notable of German manufacturers producing solid figures for a number of years in various scales and subjects. Germany was also well known for its production of flats. These figures were cast flat as the name implies and were given their relief or dimensionality by the style of painting. They were offered in boxes of 10-50 figures with each box depicting a scene such as a military encampment, buffalo hunt or winter skating scene. Many of the molds from these German manufacturers were lost or destroyed during W.W.II in the bombing of Dresden. Also, in German manufacture, noteworthy are composition figures and later plastic by companies such as Elastolin.

Mignot has been in business in France since just before 1850. Although, their production also has had a military focus, a large percentage of their sets have depicted non military themes such as arctic expeditions, wild game hunts in Africa to an alien attack from the War of the Worlds. Many came in diorama decorated boxes meant to be used as backdrops for the display of the figures in the box.

British manufacturers, most notably the William Britain Co. started production later in the late 1800’s with figures also still being produced today. Due to their export in large quantities to the United States, these are the figure many Americans think of them when thinking of “toy soldiers”. Britains figures were influenced by Great Britain’s involvement around the world and are relished by military historians. Their box labels mimicked this concept with labels such as “Armies of the World” and later going to a standardized “Regiments of All Nations However, things changed for the Wm. Britains Co after W.W.I. ”, military became not the only focus of their production. The enormity of this conflict changed how parents looked at war toys for their children. Everyone was sick of war and war related activities so their company began producing increasing numbers of non-military figures. Initially, these efforts were focused simply on farm, railroad and zoo figures but due to the success of these new lines, circus and a large garden series were added. This shift of focus of production was also meant to shift the focus of who would play with the figures from just boys to subjects that would be of interest to girls also. All of these have continued to be produced except the “garden series” which was limited to lead prior to W.W.II and revived and expanded in plastic in the 1960’s and 1970’s as the “Floral Garden”. One can also find movie related items like Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the seven dwarfs and even Buck Rogers. There were other major British manufacturers also, many who focused on non-military themes. Although not exported in as large quantities to the U.S.A. as Britains, worldwide they are as common if not more common.

The United States production is best represented by the three companies of Barclay, Manoil and Grey Iron. Together, they are known as “Dimestores’ as they were typically sold in your local 5 and 10 cent store. They differ in size, being larger, than Britains and were sold as singles versus boxed sets. Pieces were primarily U.S. military, railroad related, “Happy Farm”, cowboys and Indians. At this time of year, one typically may remember skater and ski scenes utilizing these figures to decorate the house over the holidays. U.S. production was mainly between the wars but new castings from the old molds can still be purchased today.

Like all other businesses, production lines change over the years. To cut costs, Britains figures became less detailed in their painting and shrunk is size from eight to six figures per infantry boxed set and from five to four mounted figures per boxed set. However, the biggest change came in the 1960’s when lead laws went into affect prohibiting the sale of lead toys to children. At that point, Britains converted over to plastic production, also cutting their production costs. These plastic figures are also quite collectible. The remaining metal production of all companies became the focus of adult collectibles and still continue today.

Plastic production has been big in the U.S.A. Most famous are the MARX playsets. These sets in many cases rival or surpass the value of the older Britains. Distinguishing one manufacturer from another and an original from a reproduction is an art in itself.

Collectors and collections can be widely diverse. Many Britains collectors are also military historians and collect specific periods such as Napolianic or Victorian era wars. Others have their focus on W.W.I, Caronation events, or figures from the country of their ethnic heritage. Some are what are called “cross collectors” into railroad, police, fire, boy scout or even diving related figures to name a few of the more popular. Still others have an interest in war gaming. H.G.Wells even wrote in 1913 a book, Little Wars, presenting methodology and rules of how one should play with their toy soldiers. But ultimately many are just children at heart, replacing or adding to collections from their childhood or childhood memories.

Collecting toy soldiers is a great family activity. Adults can share or carryon their childhood experience with their children, share a common interest or participate and support an interest of their children. Activities can range from going to a museum, going to a general antique show or a specialized toy soldier show, stopping at antique shops, or even exploring the subject on the internet.

From the collection of Arley Pett.*

* Photos by Roy Larkin

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