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.


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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

Reader question: toy soldiers

Trip Report: Burlingame Pez Museum

The first day of my holiday included banned toys and a glimpse at the origins of museums. I think we can say that’s going pretty well so far.

Resolving to do lots of stuff on this visit to the old homestead, my wife and I looked around for ways to do tourist stuff in the place we’re from. It turned out there were quite a few local attractions we’d never been to, but perhaps the most eye-catching thing was the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia.

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I don’t usually appear personally on the blog, but when I do it’s in front of some approximate images of PEZ dispensers.

First off: “museum” might be a strong word. It’s really a toy shop specialising in Pez and Lego, with a room in the back that covers several different themes in the history of toys. You go in, you browse around the selection of things, and then you pay your $3 (about £2) and get the tour, by which I mean you go into the back room and someone from the shop explains to you what everything is.


I know that sounds a bit blah, but it’s absolutely fascinating. You start with the basics — Pez was invented in Austria, the names comes from “Pfefferminz” even though you can’t actually get them in peppermint any more, the original dispensers didn’t have the cartoon heads on them, etc., etc. Then you get shown some of the various Pez dispensers throughout history, from beloved childhood characters to outright nightmare fuel.

Lots of rare ones, oddities (including guns that shoot Pez), custom jobs, little dioramas, etc., etc. I think my favourite was this psychedelic example:


You also get to see the Museum of Banned Toys, which is really just the Cabinet of Banned Toys, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in terribly, terribly bad ideas.

The "Buckle Gun" was a fold up cap gun you wore against your belly. It occasionally went off by itself.
The “Buckle Gun” was a fold up cap gun you wore against your belly. It occasionally went off by itself.

Consider, if you will, the Yard Dart:

A weighted metal projectile with a sharp, heavy tip? The ideal children’s toy!

The highlight of this section has to be the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab:


Released in 1951, this bad boy came with a Geiger counter, a build-it-yourself cloud chamber, and four samples of radioactive ore. All that and a comic book called, and I swear I am not making this up, Dagwood Splits the Atom!, in which Dagwood Bumstead, together with other King Features Syndicate characters like Mandrake the Magician, explain nuclear physics. With a foreword by Leslie Groves, which may make it the 1951-est thing ever to exist. Funnily enough, this thing only stayed on the market for about a year, although some sources suggest that it wasn’t the radioactive isotopes so much as the whopping $50 price tag (a lot of money in those days) and high complexity level that made it unpopular.

There are lot of other toys that can choke you to death, put your eye out or shatter into razor-edged plastic shards, but I think those were my favourites.

And then you’ve got the Classic Toy Museum, which is to say again, Cabinet Full of Lincoln Logs and Barbies and Stuff, which is clearly just what you have left over when you’re an avid toy collector but not everything you have fits within the other two main categories.

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I was particularly taken with the ad copy for Lincoln Logs:

That's the kind of gut-grabbing ad copy you got in 1918.
That’s the kind of gut-grabbing writing you got in 1918.

I had no idea they were created by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son.

There’s more, including a copy of Famous Funnies #1, effectively the first newsstand comic book, which was pretty cool.


Now, some might say that this isn’t a museum per se. It’s a collection that you can pay to go in and have a look at. But, of course, this is how museums got started. This is basically a highly specific consumerist wunderkammer.

Just if everything here were made of bright plastic.
Just if everything here were made of bright plastic.

And I don’t know about you, but I like that idea a lot. More weird little museums would be great. I’d love to buy my video games from a shop with a games museum in it. I would drive quite a long way to go to a miniatures museum (I kind of intend to, in fact). More guerrilla museology would be badass. I realise it’s easier to do on the internet, but I don’t know. I quite liked the physicality of it.

Anyway, that was the first full day. I thought it was pretty good!


Trip Report: Burlingame Pez Museum