In the First World War soldier dolls and tin
soldiers sometimes served in the chauvinistic and militant training of the young. The spirit of war
entered the nursery.
Dolls the Wide World Over
Millions of children throughout the centuries have enjoyed fighting mock battles with toy soldiers. Little boys and girls have long saved their pennies and pocket money to buy small figures of lead and tin with which to people their dreams of heroism nd glory. In fact, the Brontë children's earliest literary endeavors were stories that they wrote about a set of toy soldiers that belonged to Branwell Brontë. Much has been written about the dangers of war toys, including soldiers. Yet, all the criticism does not seem to quell interest in them. One wonders why this is so; recent films including Apocalypse Now, The Killing Fields, Platoon, and Saving Private Ryan have accurately, perhaps too accurately, portrayed the horrors and senselessness of war. In the same light, many novels like Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage and Wilfred Owen's poem "Dulce et Decorum" have also done much to debunk the romanticism of a soldier's life. Yet, children still adore toy soldiers. Some may claim that playing with war toys is cathartic because such play allows children to act out their aggressions in harmless settings, while others may seek to foster courage and patriotism through soldier play. One need only think of Lovelace's famous poem, "To Lucasta on Going to War" and its famous line, "I could not love thee so, dear, loved I not honor more."
At least one teacher I know who is an expert in children's literature has implied that war games, and even violent play, are an innate part of childhood. She has observed that, even if one takes away all toy guns from a little boy, he will chew a peanut butter sandwich into a gun, point it, and shout, "Bang! Bang!" Whatever the reason for their existence, however, toy soldiers, particularly of metal, are here to stay, and are more popular than ever.
The earliest model soldiers were probably made of wood. They represented Prince Ensah's guard and date to the twelfth Egyptian Dynasty, 2000 B.C. Like other dolls, the early toy soldiers were not meant to be toys. Rather, they accompanied their deceased owners to the underworld. One historian has said that model solders were not really popular in the Ancient world, (Alberini 5), but he then cites a Roman legionary made of tin from the Imperial Epoch (6). Also, a fifteen inch bronze model of an equestrian survives from ancient Greece. Flat lead soldiers existed in Rome in the third century A.D. The most famous model soldiers of recent times are probably the life-sized army of Chinese figures which numbered in the thousands and once adorned an emperor's tomb. These are currently reproduced as clay miniatures and may be purchased in many import and specialty stores.
As toys, model soldiers first appeared in the Middle Ages (Fawcett 215). Of these, Leslie Gordon has said that "[e]xcept for the ancient 'magic' doll, it is possible that the toy soldier, who made his first appearance in Europe in Medieval times, was the first doll to be made of metal" (43). Some of these soldiers may have had model accessories and buildings. For example, there is a four inch wooden model of the Bloody Tower of the Tower of London which may have belonged to the Little Princes murdered there. One author speculates that this model had little figures, perhaps made of metal, to go with it (Garrat 12). Such a concept is not hard to envision; even ancient dolls had tiny dishes and other accessories with them, and companies like Playskool and Lego, manufacturers of educational playthings, make toy castles complete with knights and guards.
Interest in toys that teach is not unique to our centuy. In the fifteenth century, historical model soldiers first appeared. Marie d' Medici is supposed to have had silver toy soldiers made for her son, Louis XIII (Alberini). As an adult, Louis supposedly melted them down to fund his wars (6). Bronze-cast tournament toys existed as early as 1490 and the Kunst Historiches Museum in Vienna has several examples. Also, the toy museum in Salzburg has a large collection of toy soldiers and model figures. One group represents five members of the ski patrol. They are complete to their clubs, rifles and ski poles.
Another group from the Salzburg Museum represents an open carriage with two, well-dressed passengers. The driver and his groom wear plumed helmets and the horse are white. The entire piece is well- painted and appears to be beautifully preserved. Still another interesting arrangement represents a group of jockeys. Part of the display includes dice, coins, and other paraphernalia of gambling. In the background is a flier explaining the steeple chase.
Some of these early soldiers and models were breathtaking in detail. One incredibly intricate lead musketeer is French and dates from about the time of Henry IV. It stands three inches (Garrat 13). At Cluny are two Medieval knights made of tin. Some of the Cluny soldiers were worked in gold and silver decorated with enameled bronze (Harris 8). A similar ship with soldiers in the Victoria and Albert Museum is German in origin. One of these ships represents Charles V and his court moving on deck (8).
By the early sixteenth century, some model and toy soldiers were on rollers and held miniature lances. The eighteenth century discovery of alloys facilitated the manufacture of toy soldiers (Alberini 7). Now, other metals could be mixed with the inexpensive tin to make a variety of goods. Standardized uniforms also came into use. As a result, the figures could be mass produced. Early boxed sets were sold unpainted by military unit in wooden boxes. They came in weights of 1 lb, 1/2 lb and 1/8 lb. Each kit contained from twenty to 150 soldiers (7). It is difficult to determine which manufacturer made these early soldiers because they were made before registration laws existed. Some manufacturers, however, marked their figures with initials (White 58).
Apparently, Frederick the Great inspired the creation of model soldiers in England (Hillier APOT 70). One early version was a "flat soldier," 30 mm in height (70). This height became standard for one maker, Henrichsen of Nuremburg, and was gradually adopted by others (70). Heinrichsen's sets included well-written histories to educate children (70).
In France, Ronde-Bosse created solid, three-dimensional soldiers in the eighteenth century (Alberini 7). Lucotte produced lead soldiers in 1789. Other sets came in elaborate boxes with the trademark CBG for Cuberly, Blondel and Gerbveau. This trademark is still used today. The Napoleonic sets wrapped in cellophane are popular.
Interesting and amusing stories about toy soldiers abound. the most famous is, perhaps, Hans Christian Andersen's "The Brave Tin Solder." Webster's play The Duchess of Malfi mentions toy soldiers as does Ben Jonson's The Devil is an Ass. Furthermore, in her memoirs, Catherine the Great discusses how the Czar Peter played with his model soldiers when he was Grand Duke (Harris 12). Some of these were lead (12). Supposedly, Napoleon used toy soldiers to plan battle strategies (Wenham Museum Collection 81). Some of his soldiers have been exhibited at the Coopers Union in New York. Also, a goldsmith named J.B. Odfiot is said to have made toy soldiers for Napoleon's son in 1812 (811).
Because of their popularity in the nineteenth century, old sets of soldiers were often forged. There is one anecdote of a dishonest shopkeeper who threw new solders made in the Medieval style in the Seine, then fished them out to sell as antique
The historical archives of Barcelona, Spain, have a variety of metal figures and soldiers made from nineteenth century molds. These include dancers and figures in costumed, religious figures, etc. They are platy, painted in bright colors (Galter 498). The Salzburg Toy Museum has a large collection of unpainted, flat figures.
In 1820, William Britain devised hollow metal soldiers. This development was quite an innovation because now, more and cheaper soldiers could be produced, and more could afford them (Alberini 8). The United States contributed to the popularity of hollow soldiers by beginning to sell kits with molds and ready-yo-paint soldiers (Wenham Museum Collection 81). American poet Robert Lowell describes an amusing childhood incident were he convinced a friend with a fantastic collection of model lead soldiers to trade whole battalions of them for his own crude, papier maché models.
A variety of metal soldiers are still made. Several years ago, the television show "Falcon Crest" even had a character with a whole collection of them. A 1965 Hauser catalog shows of variety of soldiers, animals and fairy tale figures done in the style of the older, three-dimensional models. All, however, are plastic. The cover of the catalog shows a smith hammering with a red-hot iron on an anvil. The latest movie to star Robert DeNiro, Ronin, features an enviable collection of Japanese samurai lead soldiers.
Furthermore, Helmet Kranks of Salzburg has created an incredibly detailed model of an armoured general, circa 1580, in papier maché, wood, leather and metal. Every feather in his helmet is in place and his real sword rests properly in its tiny scabbard (Garrat52). The author's favorite model soldier are those of English artist Russel Gammage. His Gauls, Celts and Barbarians are complete with long hair awash in lime, long moustaches, breeches and colorful tunics. The Gauls lean against their long shields, arms crossed in defiance. They look as if they are awaiting further orders. These life-like figures are interesting to compare with the original Celtic bronze idols made centuries before. Gammage is a trained artist who used to design figures for the firm of Graham Farish (89). These lead models have influenced current action figures like the Spawn series by Todd McFarlane. Many of these are also created in cold cast resin, but are painted in the colors and traditions of the old metal soldier. McFarlane Toys also insists on paying great attention to detail, so that figures like Cosmic Angela are near-perfect miniatures with life-like dimensions. These "soldiers," however, recreate in three dimensions characters from old comic strips based on Celtic and Medieval Epics. Hence, the Spawn figures, and other dolls like them, allude to the Celtic Warrior Queens like Cartimandua and Boadicia.
If warrior queens and women soldier figures are popular as collectibles, one has to observe that many of the artists who design and create them are also women. Women also collect toy soldiers. Two are Kathleen Ball Nathaniel and Mme. Fernande Metayel, Paris. Mme. Metayel is an outstanding artist who took-up painting models after the deaths of her husband and father. She has won many honors for her work (Garrat 77). Margaret Cruikshank, who started the Mystery Doll Club, a mail order club where girls received a kit for dressing dolls from foreign countries, collects dolls in military dress. The author, too enjoyed toy soldiers when young and remembers playing nurse to the fallen plastic models of a childhood friend. He relegated her to this position because "she was a girl." A noted collector and doll author, Mary Hillier, has similar memories. Another time, the author rescued and reclaimed a number of tiny, red plastic revolutionary patriots from t he gravel of a friend's drive way where they had been abandoned. Aramis men's cologne offered lead British guards as a Christmas promotion in 1988. Other figures in lead were made by the same companies, but they represented other people besides soldiers. The author has figures dating from the forties which once belonged to her uncle. One is of a tiny farm woman. In her molded left arm, she holds a basket, but her right arm is separately jointed and swings back and forth. The author also has older figures representing comedian Charlie Chaplin and Abraham Lincoln. These remain unpainted. Many painted models from the forties and fifties of this century represent Native Americans of various tribes in different poses, horses, Civil War soldiers, and Arabs and their Steeds, the latter, perhaps, in tribute to Lawrence of Arabia. All these are marked "England" in embossed letters underneath their stands. For awhile, British companies painted the skin tones of their soldiers according in various shades of brown and tan, so that African soldiers were dark brown, but Greek and Turkish soldiers were light brown.
Toy soldiers, then, were among the earliest toy dolls and metal dolls. They are a colorful source of history for everyone and continue to be created to the delight of children everywhere.
Since the days they were made in metal, they have been recreated in many materials. One unusual doll in the author's collection hails from Hong King. He is a china head doll with china limbs, dressed as a British soldier. What makes him interesting is that, while his dress and painted blonde hair and blue eyes are European, his sculpted features are Asian. To the people of Hong Kong who created him, he is their portrait of the British who colonized them. Also, besides the famous G.I. Joe still made today, their are companies making historical soldiers of plastic representing Napolean, Civil War Generals Lee and Grant, George Washington, and others. There is even a set raising the flag at Iwo Jima. G. I. Joe by Hasbro has several series of soldiers, including one representing Generals Patton, Colin Powell, and MacArthur. Another doll fittingly represents Bob Hope, who entertained American Troops so many years overseas. Women are not ignored, either. Israel produces female army soldiers, and the G.I. Joe nurse is among the most desirable Hasbro figures. Recently, the company created a special edition G.I. Jane, after Demi Moore's movie. (Ms. Moore, it will be remembered, is also an avid doll collector). That dolls often echo social and political trends is apparent in the history of G.I. Joe. Betty O. Bennett writes that G.I. Joe's sales suffered during the height of the Vietnam War because of the outry against war toys (78). Before that time, G.I. Joe and his buddies were bringing Hasbro thirty-five to forty million dollars in revenue.
For those with more exotic tastes, there are female warrior figures including Lady Death, Xena Warrior Princess, The Golden Girls by Galoob, and She-Ra from Mattel's Masters of the Universe series. Ironically, many of these soldiers are static; that is, they are not mechanical, though they represent men and women who needed to be agile and in constant motion to survive in battle. The next chapters describe dolls from all "walks of life" that not only portray certain characters, but also move and even speak like them. They are the "uncanny dolls" of which Rilke and Freud wrote, and the muses of both nightmares and dreams. In short, the next two chapters discuss automata and mechanical dolls.