written by Caroline Turner
Caroline Turner is the Elvira Growdon Intern for Collections and Archives Management for the spring 2018 semester. Caroline is a current student at Simmons School of Information Science pursuing her Masters in Library Science with a concentration in Archives Management. Caroline’s love for history and research grew from her experience on her family’s farm in upstate New York, where she enjoyed discovering tiny antique haircurlers, learning about the history of her ancestors and the region, and turning the cows out to pasture.
As a child, my favorite games were vast imaginary scenes complete with horses, castles, action figures, dolls, matchbox cars, and stuffed animals. I loved the quiet theater of it, and how a tiny shift of one toy could signify large transformation in the story playing out before me. When I became this spring’s Elvira Growdon Intern, I was drawn to these toys that encouraged imaginary play in the collections at Boston Children’s Museum (BCM). I was thrilled to find an assortment of miniature toy soldiers that evoked a wonderful sense of nostalgia and had endless research possibilities.
Toy soldiers were found in Egyptian tombs, and were first made from wood, stone, or clay, specifically for nobility. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, lead figures were made for the noble families in Germany and France. In the nineteenth century, the increases in metals, industry, and nationalism in European countries resulted in the increase of toy soldier production. German toy makers emerged as the early leaders in lead soldier manufacturing. German makers specialized in “flats” which essentially looked like cutouts on a small stand. The owner of the toy shop would decide on a subject, and then commission a draughtsman to make a drawing of the figures. An engraver would then transfer these drawings onto slate to create a mold for the molten metal. Because the figures were flat, they required less metal to produce. Once the figures were made and cooled, they would be handed over to women and children to paint. Once they were painted, they were sold by the toy shop. While the German flats in the Boston Children’s Museum Collections are perhaps from centuries later than the earliest production boom, they still fit the classic size and were made using the same technique.
The subjects of these German figures were often educational in nature. During the Enlightenment, people became more aware of how their children played and learned. Draughtsmen and engravers often looked to scholarly material for inspiration. They also looked to fine art, which often emphasized antique nudes. One favorite subject was Roman battles, especially against European groups like the Gauls. Of the three German sets at BCM, two of them are a Roman Camp and the Romans fighting the Gauls. Since the subjects of the figures, and the children playing with them, were mostly male, and because the toys were for educational purposes, having a few nude or naked figures was deemed acceptable. The Roman Battle set at the Museum includes a few naked and dying men on the battlefield.
Meanwhile in Great Britain, English toy makers were looking for a way to produce toy miniatures in a more efficient manner. William Britain made the technological breakthrough in 1893: hollow casting. This allowed toy makers to make round metal figures that, because, they were hollow, were even cheaper to produce than the flats. Britain’s toy company, aptly named “Britains” became the world leader in toy soldier production. He churned out different regiments from around the British Empire, including the Scots Guard and Bengal Lancers. At BCM, there are many sets of Britains Soldiers, including the Canadian Mounted Police and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders.
Historians also differ on the purported historical accuracy of the miniatures. Some companies wanted to churn out as many different sets as cheaply as possible, and so they used the same molds but painted the figures to be different companies or even from different time periods or places. A mold of a running man might suffice for both a Roman soldier and a World War I soldier. Other companies, however, very meticulously made detailed and individualized molds for different sets. At BCM, I struggled to identify the manufacturer of a Coronation Parade set celebrating the 1937 Coronation of King George IV and Queen Elizabeth II. Many toy British toy companies issued a set that year, and they all incorporated the minute details of the carriage, the horses, and the guards involved. All the sets, therefore, look extremely similar.
Historically, miniature sets have even been accurate enough to train real soldiers. During World War II, miniature tanks, planes, and soldiers were used to teach new recruits how to quickly identify and differentiate allies from enemies. And before World War II, during the 19th century, European military leaders instituted wargames, or “Kriegspiel” into military training. These games taught military tactics and maneuvers as well as map reading, as trainees moved toy soldiers across various diagrams.
Perhaps it is with this history in mind that some historians have argued that toy soldiers promoted violence, and even led to both World Wars. After all, Winston Churchill himself attributed his military career to the influence of his large toy soldier collection. The more current school of thought, however, is that children do not become more attuned to violence from playing with toy soldiers. Instead, children can learn valuable skills from carefully and patiently setting up their soldiers, and by cataloging their collection. Imaginary games can teach children about being in control of complex situations, planning ahead, and organizing the details.
Many families in the 19th century peacefully incorporated their toy soldiers into their nativity scenes along with putz sheep and other small figures. Complex landscapes often included natural materials like moss and branches as well as the toy soldiers, carved animals, and nativity figurines.
To close my internship here at the Museum, I was able to set up my own scene mixing a variety of soldiers throughout time and place with other toys such wooden zoo animals and putz sheep, paying homage to the history of the toy soldier and the variety of imaginative play. I hope you will be able to visit the Museum and discover this scene of miniatures in the Collections window on the second floor.
Kenneth Brown,”Modelling for War?: Toy Soldiers in Late Victorian and Edwardian Britain,” Journal of Social History 24, no. 2 (Winter, 1990):
Thomas Mannack, “The Ancient World in Miniature: German Flat Tin Figures of the 19th and 20th Centuries”, in Imagines, La Antigüedad en les Artes Escénias y Visuales, P. Castillo et al. (eds.), (La Rioja 2008)
Dave Gathman, “Toy Soldiers Trace Nearly All of History—But Not Very Accurately ” Chicago Tribune, August 24, 2015.