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While the collecting of toy soldiers goes back centuries to ancient times, it took the Industrial Revolution to bring large scale collecting of these military miniatures to the average person.
Toy soldiers were the purview of emperors, kings, nobles, generals and their offspring. With the advent of an increasingly industrialized Western Europe, companies in Germany, France and England began to manufacture toy soldiers in the early Nineteenth Century. Germany started the process with the creation of lines of lead soldiers known as ‘flats.’ They were called flats because of their silhouette-like dimension with narrow profile and small bases. Toy soldiers from France took on a decidedly different appearance than their counterparts in Germany; their soldiers became known as ‘solids.’ Solids soldiers are larger than flats and have a fully-rounded three-dimensional quality and more lifelike in appearance. Both the German-preferred flats and the solids coming from the French factories were made from tin and/or lead and use of lead in the paint acquired the hard, shiny, lustrous protective surface of the miniatures.
In 1893 English toy manufacturer William Britain created a new variation of toy soldier called ‘hollow cast.’ These figures were made by soldering together two metal shell sides of a figure to create a whole unit; the process revolutionized the business. Cheaper and lighter than solids and more universally prized than flats, Britain new figures became the biggest selling figures in the world. By 1905 Britain company was producing 5 million castings of over 100 varieties of military miniatures. Additionally, Britain company insured that their figures were a constant 54mm (1/32) scale. A criticism of Germany’s leading soldier maker Heyde of Dresden was the lack of scale consistency, as Heyde produced 30mm to 110mm figures.
While England, France and Germany continued to export their fine military miniatures to the world, a German firm O.& M. Hausser created yet another toy soldier variation – this time not in metal. In 1912 the Hausser firm released their new 75mm ‘composition’ figures. Composition figures were made from a mixture of sawdust, glue and linseed oil that was pressure-molded onto a metal rod frame. These figures were light and inexpensive to make. The composition figures of soldiers, zoo animals and figures from the American West remained popular until replaced by plastic figures in the post-World War II period.
American toy manufacturers, most notably Barkley and Manoil, produced prior to World War II large metal figures, 60mm – 80mm in a hollow cast process. These were the most popular military miniatures in the United States at that time. These hardy and robust toy soldiers were sold in U.S. discount merchandise stores called ‘dimestores.” It is from these stores that these figures took the generic name of ‘Dimestore Figures.” These toy soldiers were very popular in the money-tight Depression years and were available for purchase in single units. Soldiers imported from Europe were sold in sets and were often too expensive for Depression purses.
The ‘Dimestore Figures’ came in literally hundreds of different poses and were virtually indestructible even in children’s hands in living room or backyard battles.
By the 1950s the dominant toy soldiers for playtime were plastics. Steadily gaining market share, plastic figures of all sizes, shapes and historical periods came to dominate the toy soldier youth market. The Marx toy company produced some remarkable sets utilizing plastic figures and accoutrements along with castles, forts, ranches, et al. Other than the undesirable attribute of bent weapons and arms, plastics were much safer for young children. With the ability to be molded in many colors, plastic figures often needed no painting; Union soldiers were blue and Confederates were gray.
Plastic soldiers and the very basic and plain metal toy soldiers often did not meet the requirements of the serious adult collector. This gave life to the final variation of soldiers: the model figure. With enthusiasm gaining for this type of figure, the toy soldier collecting hobby shifts from manufacturing to skilled individual soldier makers. These connoisseur, or museum quality, figures are by nature limited editions. Model figures are the ultimate toy soldier, being of the highest quality sculpting and painting by skilled artisans.
Model miniatures are detailed replications of actual persons or members of historically relevant periods or organizations. Model soldiers are painted to a high degree of detail emphasizing authenticity and most often have matte finish paint, either enamel or acrylic.
Sculpted castings of model miniatures are either original creations or acquired from one of the many suppliers of model soldier kits, then assembled and painted by skilled individuals. Some of the finest kits come from Italy’s Pegaso, Spain’s Andrea, and France’s Metal Models and LeCimier. Model figures high artistic quality figures are usually available in small quantities and command high prices given the skill of the soldier maker and time necessary to produce figures of this elevated expertise.
In 1992 with the collapse of the Soviet Union a new and unique accessibility to the high quality model figures became available. This accessibility led to the genesis of The AeroArt St. Petersburg Collection.
Russian-made model soldiers began to be emulated by the soldier producing companies of the West, not always successfully. However, with the ‘Russian Invasion’ the entire toy soldier industry improved by leaps and bounds adopting the style of Russian figures, incorporating very robust 54mm, matte paint finish, painter signatures and mostly superior sculpting. Today’s marketplace military miniatures are the finest figures ever available in quality and imaginative design.
Toy soldiers have indeed gone a full circle. Originally toy soldiers were hand-crafted artistic pieces made for royalty and the very rich. This period was followed by the industrial revolution in which factory-made toy soldiers became available to everyone at affordable prices. Today hand-crafted, artistically rendered connoisseur art miniatures are available at affordable prices – the best of both worlds.
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