As you begin to collect vintage toy soldiers you will discover the fascinating and interesting History of Toy Soldiers. Models and toys based on military forces have been around since the dawn of human civilization, having been found in archeological digs in Egypt and China. Production of tin soldiers for the toy market began in the 1700's in Europe. However, these military figurines did not become a popular child's toy until the late 1800's when mass production techniques made the cost of toy soldiers practical for the rising middle class.
William Britain of England developed a new method, called hollow casting, in 1893. This technique allowed his company to produce high quality toy soldiers faster and cheaper than his competitors in Germany. With the hollowcasting technique, the toy soldiers were lighter and more fun for kids to play with.
These early toy soldiers were made primarily from lead, a highly toxic element. However, people did not understand how dangerous it was at that time. Many other companies like John Hill & Company, Manoil, Barclays and others used lead alloy to manufacture their toy soldiers. Others, such as Elastolin and Lineol, used various non-metallic composites to create their lines of toy soldiers. These composites were usually some sort of sawdust and glue.
Plastic toy soldiers begin to enter the market in the late 1930's, however, WWII delayed their introduction on a mass scale until the 1950's. One of the first American companies to manufacture plastic toy soldiers was Beton. Plastic toy soldiers really took over the marketplace when the dangers of lead and lead alloys became clear to the public. This put many older toy manufacturers out of business when they couldn't adapt quickly enough to the change while it brought new opportunities to some.
One company that took great advantage of this shift was the Louis Marx and Company. Marx playsets were a staple of Christmas catalogs in the 1950's through 1970's. They made toy soldier playsets from many eras including the US Civil War, Indian Wars, Medieval times, the World Wars and others. They also made some collectible sets like US Presidents, Jesus and the Apostles and Queen Elizabeth.
W. Britain also made a successful transition by releasing plastic toy soldiers. Instead of selling these new figures under their established brand name they used new brand names, Herald and Deetail, to market these lines of toy soldiers. They retained the W. Britain name to produce collectible metal figurines for the collector market.
Another English company that did well in the plastic toy soldier market was Airfix. They produced a line of quality sets that were much admired by hobbyists. Their designs were often duplicated by Asian manufacturers as they entered the plastic toy soldier market in the early 1970's. These cheaply made bagged army men are still with us today.
Metal toy soldiers weren't completely abandoned in the 1970's though. Companies like Ral Partha and Grenadier made metal figurines for the table top wargaming and fantasy role playing gaming crowd. These highly detailed metal toy soldiers remain popular today. Collectors enjoy painting them to match their tastes.
In the 1990's collecting toy soldiers increased in popularity as a hobby. Companies like W. Britain started making higher end, highly detailed, toy soldiers for this growing market. These new toy soldiers, if you can still call them toys, are known for the fantastic details and historical accuracy.
It will be interesting to see where the history of toy soldiers goes from here.