Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The History of “Tin” or “Lead” Soldiers – PART 1

The earliest collections of model soldiers belonged to the ancient Chinese cavalry commander, Chang, and was found in the province of Wu Wei in 1969; another belonged to the Egyptian prince, Emsah, who lived about 2,000 years before the birth of Christ.
Throughout the Mediterranean there have been discoveries of bronze model figures from Ancient Greece and flat tin figures of Romans, and Mexico, and Peru both have claims to be the sites of early manufactories of model soldiers.
Many of the model figures of the Middle Ages were probably used as religious tokens. Made of lead-tin alloy because of the ease of production, they were sold, to pilgrims who had made a journey to a holy place. They would have been made by local craftsmen, used to casting in soft metal.
Playing with model soldiers was very popular among the children of noble households. There is an illustration in the medieval manuscript, The Hortus Deliciarum, which depicts two children manipulating foot knights on a table top, and, with the use of strings, making them engage in combat.
In the 1600s the French kings had collections of soldiers, often made of precious metals. Louis XIII and Louis XIV both had magnificent model armies with figures made of silver, lead, wood, pottery, and paper. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had troops of bronze. Others included The King of Rome, Napoleon II, who had soldiers made of gold, the Prince Elector of Bavaria favoured men of wood, Frederick the Great of Prussia, Napoleon II, Czar Nicholas I, Czar Peter III, Alfonso XIII of Spain, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the King of Hannover, and Frederick William III of Prussia all collected toy soldiers. More modern collectors of note included H.G.Wells, Winston Churchill, Douglas Fairbanks, James Mason and Peter Cushing.
As far as the modern-day collector is concerned, the history of toy or model soldiers begins in the second half of the eighteenth century in Southern Germany when manufacturers in Nuremberg began to make tin Nativity scenes and illustrations from the childhood of Christ. The famous Hilpert family was one of the first to popularize tin figures, their production beginning in about 1770. Their stock was taken over by J.L.Stahl, who continued the business during the Napoleonic Wars.
To date, the manufacturers of flat soldiers have produced figures of every conceivable subject, both military and civilian, ranging back in time to the Stone Ages and forward into the realms of fantasy and science fiction.
In Britain and the United States, flat tin figures, although very popular about 100 years ago, and from these evolved the semi-flat, half-round figure, until, in about 1870, they finally started producing solid fully round figures. Two firms, well known to collectors, were Haffner of Fuerth and Heyde of Dresden, and these figures are avidly collected to this day. But they gradually declined in popularity because the figures which were imported became more and more expensive and were gradually overtaken by home-produced items which were fully round figures similar to those that many of us played with as children. Although they were often larger, they could be marketed at a much lower price because of lower distribution costs, and the fact that taxation and import duties were not levied on them.
In France in about 1790, a man called Lucotte began to produced toy soldiers in French army uniforms. In 1825 three other Frenchmen, Cuperly, Blondel, and Gerbeau, founded another soldier firm in competition with Lucotte and their trademark was C.B.G. They eventually absorbed Lucotte only to be taken over by the firm of Mignot some years later. Mignot still produces toy soldiers of good quality from their works in Paris.
In the 1890s William Britain, of North London, started to produce toy soldiers. He discovered that he was able to cast metal soldiers by what is called the slush-casting, or hollow-casting process, which leaves the centre of the figure hollow, thus reducing costs of materials and transport.
Britain’s figures soon became popular, and within a few years his firm, had a catalogue of hundreds of different items. The figures cheaper than the German imports, were more accurate in detail, were painted to a very high standard and they were 54 mm in size, some 9mm larger than the competing armies from France and Germany.
An innovation in the toy soldier industry was that of the German firm of Hausser, who, realizing that mountains of sawdust were going to waste in the Black Forest from the wood-cutting industry, hit upon the idea of making what is, in effect, a papier máché figure. It is formed of sawdust and glue around a wire base, pressed while damp into a metal mould, heated in an oven until the glue had hardened, and then left to dry. In the 1920s and 1930s, these figures, marketed under the name of ‘Elastolin’, were very popular throughout continental Europe because of their cheapness of manufacture, their lightness when it came to transportation, and the tremendous variety in their positions. For the first time, the manufacturers of larger toy figures were able to produce realistic-looking men in action. These are really model soldiers. Various other firms copied the Elastolin figures, the most famous being Lineol of Dresden.
In Italy there also were attempts to make the figures from sawdust, or seggatura, but as most Italians at that time were very poor the domestic market was not profitable. In the 1950s, these models, also known as “pasta” figures, were exported in large quantities to the United States in order to earn dollars, which was at that time a much more stable currency than the lire. There were about ten companies producing the figures Celloplasto, Chialú, Confaloniera, Figir; made by the Antonini family in Rome; Fontanini, Nardi, Rovello, Salpa Vittoria and Xiloplasto, being the most well known.
Firms such as Britains, Heyde, and Mignot also made a variety of vehicles, wagons, and guns to go with their soldiers and the flat tin soldier manufacturers very often made three-dimensional wagons or artillery pieces to accompany their small armies.
The basic difference between model soldiers and toy soldiers is the market for which they are intended. Most toy soldiers are, or were, produced for children, a model soldier, on the other hand, was usually created by a craftsman for an adult market. These figures were not mass produced as were toy soldiers, but were made in relatively small quantities, and normally, individual figures were animated and positioned by hand, either to the customer’s requirements, or to the individual taste of the animator.
After World War II the hobby of collecting model soldiers started to grow. There had been model soldier producers before the war, for example the firm of Greenwood and Ball, and two other manufacturers, Frederick Ping and Richard Courtenay, catering for a very small market and unknown beyond their own small circles of collectors. The value of these early figures is now enormous. After the war the collectors of toy soldiers began competing with one another in order to improve the quality of painting. They began to realize that shading ought to be a part of the painting process and also that the figures should be painted in matt rather than gloss paint. Gradually it dawned upon the collecting public that what they were attempting to do was not to make a fine array of toy figures, but to make miniature representations of the human form, clad in all the varieties of military clothing that history has recorded for us.
Dissatisfied with the commercial products then available, artists began to make their own figures. So from the late 1940s and early 1950s, the model and the toy soldier started to drift apart and today, while the model collector avidly seeks the finest figures he can afford, the toy soldier collector is quite happy to go rummaging through old boxes of broken and discarded toys.
During the 1950s, in Britain, continental Europe and the United States, there were probably as many as forty or fifty manufacturers, all attempting to sell their soldiers by mail order, or through soldier fairs, or soldier societiesand the first of these,The British Society of Collectors of Model Soldiers, was created in 1936, and is today called the British Model Soldier Society (BMSS). From the 1930s through the 1960s, very few of the creators of these soldiers were ever fortunate enough to obtain an outlet through a retail shop as, generally, the only shops that would consider stocking such items were toy shops and these model figures were much too expensive to be sold to children. In addition, the makers could not sell to fancy gift shops items that were regarded by the owners of such establishments as toys.
Whereas the toy soldiers were, and still are, invariably sold as finished products, the flat-soldier manufacturers in many cases put extra arms or legs on both men and horses, as well as different tails for the horses. From one basic casting, therefore, with perhaps six or eight legs on a horse and two or three arms on a man, plus three or four tails for the horse, a whole regiment of figures, all in slightly differing positions could be created, simply by carefully cutting off the surplus pieces.
A problem with traditional model soldiers was that the high cost of production coupled with minimal sales didn’t provide sufficient income for manufacturers.
In the mid 1970s, a new type figure was introduced. These figures had the detail typical of model soldiers, but because of their mass production, coupled with the fact that the figures were designed to complement toy soldier collections, they were distributed at a price which was less than half that of the model soldier. Made by the firm of Soldiers, of Lambeth in London, these figures, Soldiers’ Soldiers, could be provided with a dozen different arms and could therefore be assembled in a variety of different poses. Because of the detail on the figures, they could either be painted up as individual models, or as traditional gloss painted toysoldiers.
John Tunstill, the author of this and the next two articles, was born in London, England in 1939, and he received soldiers as Christmas and birthday presents throughout the 1940s. By the age of nine, John was casting lead figures in aluminium moulds, on the gas stove in his mother’s kitchen, painting them and selling them at school and through local friendly shopkeepers. John played soldiers in the back garden with regiments of converted Britains’ 54mm figures from about 1950 to 1955. He joined the British Model Soldier Society (BMSS) in 1955, served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) for five years, in England and Cyprus, in photo reconnaissance with 13 Squadron. He later became a Committee member of the BMSS, and organiser of the Wargame Section of the BMSS. In 1960, John was named Secretary of the Wargame Rules Section, and later co-authored the Rules for American Civil Wargames. He was also an organiser of the first known Wargame Convention, held at the Rembrant Hotel, in London and of the second one at the Piccadilly Hotel, also in central London. He became General Manager of Tradition, the militaria shop in Piccadilly, London, and advertising manager for the magazine Tradition. He was also an advisor to Phillips Auctioneers, London, regarding their early bulk soldier auctions, and became publisher and editor of Miniature Warfare, the world's first monthly wargaming magazine. He was producer and distributor of the Just Soldier range of 54mm lead alloy figures. John authored the book, Discovering Wargames, Shire Publications, c.1965, which ran to seven printings, and edited Discovering English Civil Wargames, c.1967 and his major work, “The world of Model Soldiers”, can be found on his website
For more information contact :

John Tunstill La Preghiera Calzolaro 06018 PG 0039 075 930 2428