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Toy soldiers: An interesting but complicated treasure to collect

Dec. 08, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Toy soldiers seem to be an item little boys would covet. However, it seems the big boys are the real consumers. Since the times of the ancient Egyptians the wealthy have collected the 'little men.' It wasn't until the 1700s that these intriguing little fellows were mass-produced but because of the limited quantities the hobby was fairly well restricted to the well to do.

Back in ancient times toy soldiers were made of common materials such as stone, wood, clay and metal. It was a French company, Mignot that first poured the little two-inch lead soldiers and painted them up in festive uniforms. The Germans were close behind the French in developing the industry and as time moved along the British got into the act as well. The British created a more consumable product in that their soldiers were hollow and didn't cost as much to produce. By doing so they opened the market up to not only children but the common man as well.

After World War II plastic toy soldiers came on the market and captured the attention of children worldwide. Many a little boy would collect both metal and plastic toy soldiers. Eventually everyone became aware of the problems lead poisoning could present so production of lead soldiers ceased but plastic continued to have a following. Due to the lead issue and the change of attitudes concerning military toys there was a double whammy to the hobby and soon fewer folks were collecting the soldiers.

There seemed to be a lag in this collectible until the late 20th Century when new metal alloys brought back the metal toy soldier. Both metal and plastic toy soldiers saw more collectors as all those little boys of yesteryear grew up and recollected how much they enjoyed the 'soldiering' world.

Collecting these little guys can be complicated and specialization is advised. Sizes can range from 1/2 an inch to 3 inches so collecting a particular size is one way of specializing. Other areas include types of materials used, eras, wars and countries they portray plus particular manufacturers.

Prices of these little figurines are quite affordable although there is the rare and significant that will take a price into the thousands. Condition is important in the pricing as is provenance and physical materials used in manufacturing the soldier. For more information consult one of the several collectors societies devoted to toy soldiers.

Jean McClelland writes about antiques for The Herald-Dispatch.

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