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Toy Soldiers through History

If you want to know what soldier uniforms looked like throughout the history, turn to toy soldiers from different periods. They do a good job illustrating, even if not entirely precisely sometimes. You can go back in time and find figurines from well-known periods, like the American Civil War and WWII, or you can discover what army looked like during the English Civil War, the Boer War, or the Boxer Rebellion, which have not been studied that well.

Toy Soldiers

While it's definitely fun to visualize what different eras looked like when it comes to uniforms, don't expect them to be very authentic, according to history buffs.

Two retired teacher, Pielin from Streamwood and Sommers from Oak Park, Illinois, found a common grounds shearing a passion of metal, wood, paper, or plastic soldier figures. They founded a magazine in 1976, called Old Time Soldiers. Needless to say, both of those men have very deep knowledge about the toys and what they represent.

Pielin and Sommers both agree that the main reason behind the sloppiness of soldier toys throughout the history is that toy makers want to use the same design to fill multiple roles. A good illustration of that is a "Fort Dearborn" model that was sold in 1933 in Chicago World's fair. It looks exactly like a log used by the company for many Western scenes with various names. Moreover, it probably looks nothing like the real fort that was established near the mouth of Chicago River.

Little boys love fights and thus want to play with soldiers that look like fighting participants of whatever conflict that dominates the news. For example, when the Balkan wars were in the headlines right before the WWI, toy makers caught on and started making figurines of troops using the same model for Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, or whatever other country they wanted to represent. The only difference was painting them with different colors. Looking further back, manufacturers cared even less about something like truth. They are directly responsible for making us think that Vikings wore helmets with horns. Their mission was to make exciting characters and that's all they knew.

Scottish fighting with Africans are depicted wearing kilts and red coats for the fun of it, but in real life they wore something close to a boring tan uniform. To this day we have Robin Hood, Richard the Lion Heart, all kinds of knights and kings living all over historic periods, because nobody ever bothered about keeping track. People living alongside dinosaurs? No problem, we have hundreds of toys to prove it really happened.

Warriors of the Vikings

Europeans have a bit more bravado to show wounded soldiers, even carrying their heads stuck to a pole sometimes. American counterparts might have bandages, but that's as gory as you will find them. There is another set, made in Denmark, which depicts a British monk about to hit a Viking with a sword. The Viking is blowing a horn and is oblivious of the surroundings. This is a great scene for music critics, as Sommers jokes. A Chicago manufacturer, J. Edward Jones decided to make toys to educate children about American history, which to him started in 1066 with the Norman Invasion of England. The figures were made at home by women for one quarter of a cent. They not only had to hand-paint all the soldiers, but get their own supplies too.

At one point Edward Jones made Father Time figure, that suspiciously resembled Elgin National Watch Co. symbol, an old man with a beard carrying an hourglass. This company's symbol was very well visible along Lake Street in downtown Chicago. Historians, like Pielin, believe that he wanted to strike a deal with the watch makers and sell or give away the Father Time figure during the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress World fair. Unfortunately, Jones went bankrupt before then, together with his figurines and history education.

Lead was the main component and material for many soldier figurines, until it was banned in 1955 in Britain because of rising health concerns. Plastic replaced lead in 1960s and it became even cheaper to make the toys because plastic was light and easier to mold and transport.

This toy hobby retells the history and is also affected by history. Aluminum castings were very widely used after the WWII because so much scrap aluminum became available in England and France. Craftsmen form countries like Germany had to flee to countries like Argentina, taking their craft along and making remote countries of the world famous for toy making.

Model aircraft and war machinery were used to train soldiers how to recognize the enemy during both World Wars and later reached the market as very valuable vintage collector's items.