Reader question: toy soldiers

Reader Adam asks:

What are your thoughts on the history of toy soldiers?

I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that I have “thoughts,” which is funny considering how much of my mental energy is taken up by thinking about present-day toy soldiers.

Part of the question of the history of toy soldiers — of toys in general — comes down to the vexed question of intent. That is, we definitely see figurines of various kinds throughout history, but are they “toys” per se? In some cases, doubtful: like, these soldier figures from an Egyptian tomb have a ritual/magical function, but I definitely always think of them as a wargame unit when I see them in museums.

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I knew a guy when I was doing my MA who was very fascinated by what these kinds of figurines could tell us about the Egyptian military — and he was a wargamer.

You also get what appear to be toy figurines of knights in the middle ages, I do know that: see some examples here.

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But it’s really in the 18th century that “toy soldiers” as we know them become a thing, particularly in Germany. I assume this is to do with changing trends in consumer culture — this is also when we get “shopping” as a leisure activity, for instance, and my guess would be that this is also when you start to get any kind of large-scale production (even if not that large-scale) of dolls, dollhouses, jacks, etc. But it’s also true that this is an age of militaries with standard, elaborate uniforms, where a bunch of identical monopose brightly-coloured tin figures is what an army would idealise itself as.

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This kind of thing, you know what I mean? That’s the War of the Austrian Succession, so it’s about right era-wise.

And of course, this is also the era that I associate in my mind with the rise of militarism that goes with the nation-state, the idea of armies as institutions. Rrrrroughly; we’re talking long-term trends here.

Now, a lot of these early tin soldiers are made using two-part flat slate moulds, so they’re very thin. When I was getting into wargaming, the books on the topic in my local library made mention of these, although they were understood as primarily a German thing and an older thing.

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These are from the Roscheider Hof museum in Germany, for instance. 

As the mould-making technology develops (I assume as rubber moulds get easier and cheaper to make and hollow casting becomes easier? I legit don’t know how that works), you start to get the three-dimensional toy soldiers that most British kids remember. I even had some of these in the day, although heaven knows where they came from. These are the kinds of things H.G. Wells wrote his wargame rules for, I believe.

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This kind of thing, y’know. 

And then there’s Elastolin and then plastic moulding becomes practical and you get cheap 1/35 or 1/72 model soldiers, like Airfix toys, and plastic army men in bags and then Gary Gygax is gluing cardboard wings to dime-store dinosaurs to make dragons and then you have D&D which begat Warhammer and so on and so on. I actually like 1/72 plastic figures and buy them compulsively, even though I have almost no use for them. But they’re so varied and economical! Heck, I don’t know. There are a lot of them out there, though. 

So yeah — “toy soldiers” in the sense we understand them are probably a product of the technology and economy for mass-production being available plus uniformed militaries being the norm plus society being very into the pageant and spectacle of the military. Note that a lot of early toy soldiers aren’t in any kind of combat position and there are a lot of military bands, colour parties and so on — you’re clearly meant to be creating a parade with them.

Tangentially, there’s quite a lot of good stuff on the evolution from military wargaming to modern fantasy and adventure gaming in Jon Peterson‘s excellent book Playing at the World, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you have not read it.

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Reader question: toy soldiers

6 thoughts on “Reader question: toy soldiers

  1. I wonder if toy soldiers also needed the invention of newspapers and war correspondents to become popular. Before, say, the Napoleonic Era, battles were something that happened out there somewhere, and you heard about them months later if at all. The main source of info was returning troops, who necessarily gave a very ground-level description of the fight. Maybe if it was important enough someone would commission a masque or a play about the battle, but otherwise people who weren’t there didn’t really know much.

    With newspapers, everyone suddenly becomes an armchair field marshal, and from there it’s an obvious step to start maneuvering troops around the hearthrug.

    1. That’s an interesting point. I don’t know about newspapers per se, but I do wonder if widespread representation of battles and the military through catchpenny prints wasn’t important. Certainly great victories, famous generals and so on were popular print subjects.

  2. Something you may or may not be aware of: the Osprey book “Soldiers of the English Civil War” opens by discussing the development of 16th-century military drills inspired by classical authors, and states “It was the Dutch leader Maurice of Orange… who successfully wedded Classical theories to the changed conditions and weapons of the 16th-century… through a combination of extensive reading of Classical military texts, and experimental wargames. For the latter, lead figures were used to discover solutions to the considerable practical problems which the process of re-learning Classical drill and tactics involved.”

    Unfortunately, it’s largely a book on the Soldiers of the English Civil War, so that tantalising detail is all it contains on this topic. I’ve no idea whether this use of wargames miniatures as tool had any relationship to the later development of toy soldiers as a popular pastime.

    1. Interesting! I knew that model soldiers were used for military … simulations? … but I had no idea it was that early. I suppose they would be a good way of arranging formations.

  3. Harry Pearson, in his excellent memoir “Achtung Schweinehund!: A Boy’s Own Story of Imaginary Combat”, relates that Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632), was said to have commissioned an army of lead figures which were forfeited to the Crown (along with a hefty fine) after his relatives got mixed up in that nasty bit of business with the Gunpowder Plot. The Earl got off lightly, spending the next seventeen years in the Tower of London.

    Pearson goes on to quote Webster’s “The Duchess of Malfi” (1612-13);

    “He hath read all the late service as the City-Chronicle relates
    it; and keeps two pewterers goings, only to express battles in model.”

    and suggests that it might be a topical reference to the unfortunate Earl.

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