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Military Miniatures - Model Soldiers

( Originally Published Mid 1950's )



Making and collecting military miniatures is certainly nothing new. From time immemorial, man has created images of his heroes and gods. Since wars and rumors of war have been man's heritage, it is only natural to find the craftsman, both amateur and professional, making images that wear the uniforms and armor of the fighting man.

Be they toys, scale models, works of art, military training aids or just dust catchers, these small reproductions of soldiers and machines of war have fascinated people around the globe for thousands of years. Just as the history of man is filled with both fact and fancy, the narrative of the little soldiers made from base and precious metals, terra cotta, wood and other materials, must also contain not only proven facts, but legends and suppositions of the scholars as well. In museum collections throughout the world, especially in France, England and Germany, there are examples of small military figures from the very early ages of man up to those of modern craftsmen. All the modern figures and most of those from the middle ages on are well documented, and there is no question about their original purpose. However, although the very ancient examples are military miniatures or model soldiers, there is no definite proof of their precise purpose. From the tombs of the Ancient Egyptians, there are little wooden foot soldiers bearing spears, and also charioteers. In Sardinia and Italy, archaeologists have unearthed small bronze figures wearing helmets and carrying the small shield and short sword of the Phoenician warrior. Ancient grave mounds in many countries have yielded cavalrymen, foot troops and war chariots of various materials, even mixtures of tin and lead. A mounted figure of Caesar, unearthed at Pesaro in Italy, along with castings of Roman legionaires made of lead and tin mixtures found at Mainz, certainly confirms that the Romans were familiar with the little lead soldier.

Since many of the early examples mentioned were obtained from tombs and burial mounds, it is natural to assume that the miniatures were not intended to be toys. Ancient burial rites often provided for the deceased's protection and comfort in the next world by entombing with him servants, food and guards, along with other necessities of life, according to his wealth and rank. In some cases, actual people were killed and buried with their masters; however in most burials, models of the personnel and equipment needed for the deceased's comfort on his journey were placed in the tomb with him. Considering that other items not of a military nature were also found when unearthing many of the miniature soldiers mentioned, the logical assumption is that they were actually religious symbols. Although this may indicate that in the ancient world a man had to die in order to collect military miniatures, simple deduction would suggest this was not true, and that toy soldiers were most likely a familiar object in the lives of the ancients.

The basic desires, needs and passions of man have not changed through the ages. The methods and speed of accomplishing the eventual end have changed, but the ancient's pride of possession, the spirit of conquest, the need for shelter, food and relaxation or play were just as strong as today. Children of the prehistoric and ancient world admired heroes just as much as modern children do, and there is no question that boys of those bygone ages fought many a mock battle with wooden swords and shields. It is also logical to believe that fathers, uncles or maybe the metal worker in the hut down the way made model armies for the boys' amusement. They may have been of wood, clay or even cast from metal, because man was well advanced in the art of casting many centuries before the birth of Christ. And men, being men, no doubt joined in the play, setting the miniatures out in formations, showing their sons how dad won the last war almost single handed. In the homes of the Romans there could have been a model of the Trojan horse with Homeric warriors that could be placed inside. This is supposition, of course, for the ravages of time and the enthusiasm of a boy's miniature battles do not lend them-selves to preserving historic relics. How many adult collectors today can find the leaden armies they shot down in childhood.

There is no question that miniature soldiers were a popular form of amusement during the middle ages and were made to be played with, since a number of old wood cuts show young people with them. One particularly interesting wood cut by Hans Burgkmair — who did a series of plates showing the activities of Emperor Maximilian I — shows him as a child playing with a pair of mounted knights which, by an ingenious system of wheels and strings, charged each other in a realistic manner and splintered their lances which were made of brittle wood. It is also recorded that Maximilian presented a set of jousting knights mounted on wooden horses to young King Louis II of Hungary. A number of small lead and tin figures of knights which were finished only on one side have been recovered from the Seine, and are sup-posed to have been made during the thirteenth century or earlier. However, since the figures found resemble particular persons such as Saint George and others, they may have been a type of insignia or badge rather than toys, but the final answer is still open to debate.

Mechanical toys were well known in the sixteenth century, and in the latter part of that century Daniel Bertel of Lubeck, Germany, offered, beside mechanical figures that could walk, dance and do acrobatics, a fleet of galleys with Turks and Christians engaged in battle at sea. Historic records indicate that little soldiers were a standard toy of royal children. Louis III had a set of miniature soldiers that fitted into holes of a flat board and Louis XIV had in his youth an army of miniature soldiers made of silver which are reputed to have cost 50,000 thalers. As a youth, Louis XV possessed an even more elaborate set of silver soldiers. It is said that the minister of war, Marquis de Vauban, journeyed to Nuremberg to oversee the creation of the set by the celebrated craftsman Hans Hautch and his son Gottfried. This set of miniatures was so cleverly made that ingenious mechanical devices allowed the operator to put the soldiers through the various drills of the day. Unfortunately, the little tin and lead figures of the dauphins did not survive, and the silver ones were melted down to help fill the French treasury during lean years. However, letters and records preserved in various museums give authenticity to their existence and operation.

Museums also preserve examples of less elaborate miniatures made during this and other periods, some of crude workmanship and others of intricate detail. Models of knights in full detailed armor are in some cases so fine that it raises the question as to whether they were actually toys or models for armor. But documents prove that such detailed creations were made to be given as gifts and to be played with. Considering the many types preserved in museum and private collections from these earlier centuries, common logic would suggest that playing with miniature soldiers was one of the leading pas-times of the day; those figures of the middle class and peasants not as fine as those of nobility, but none the less brave when maneuvered over imaginary battle fields by their young commanders.

The few modern hobbyists who assume an attitude of hurt pride when their collections are compared with toys, will no doubt be pleased to learn that during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the term had a much broader meaning. The word "Toy" was not used only to designate children's playthings, but also referred to any small article. Within the various guilds there were craftsmen who did not consider it beneath their dignity to make miniatures or models of larger pieces for their patrons; neither did they refuse commissions from wealthy customers for miniatures of soldiers and other military pieces. Needless to say, models created by these artists were, in most cases, of superb workmanship and are generally the miniatures that are found preserved in museum collections.

Frederick the Great, who fought all the great powers of Europe, and the soldier whom all other soldiers of Europe tried to imitate, was in a way responsible for miniature soldiers reaching the stage of large production for the masses. The exploits of Frederick were told and retold throughout the world and the people were very military conscious. Taking advantage of this military fervor, Andreas Hilpert of Coburg in 1760 started the mass production of miniature soldiers and is, without a doubt, the originator of the toy soldiers as we know them today. Mass production made the little soldiers a familiar figure in play rooms throughout the world and the armies of different countries dressed in proper uniforms were added as fast as possible, for no country was content until the Hilperts made models of its soldiers. The Hilpert soldiers were made of tin and engraved on both sides and stood on flat bases like the "Flats" of today. Personalities, such as Frederick, his generals and other famous people, were made a little larger than the other figures, and more care was taken in their painting. Many examples of these soldiers exist today in museums and private collections; there are catalogs which were published by the Hilperts still in existence showing the great varieties of miniatures they produced, including wild and domestic animals, scenic items and civilians as well as soldiers. "Get a good thing going and imitators will spring up like mushrooms" was just as true in the eighteenth century as it is today, and by the end of the seventeen hundreds there were many makers of tin soldiers on a mass production basis. Most of the casting and painting was done on a piece work basis in homes, after the forms or molds had been are well detailed castings of Frederick from captured British cannon. A complete set is shown in the chapter on Queen and grenadier officers serving war games.

The exploits of Frederick followed by the wars of Napoleon made the miniature soldiers even more popular, not only as toys but to instruct soldiers in the art of war. Little tin soldiers became standard visual aids in instructing young officers to maneuver troops and are still used for that purpose. Fortunately, several of the manufacturers got together and decided on a standard height for figures so that armies of greater variety could be assembled; the size decided on was 30 to 32 mm. for foot figures with all other figures and equipment con-forming in scale. Most "Flats" of today are still made to this standard.

With the exception of special pieces the painting and finishing on most of the soldiers wasn't good, since the painters often knew little if anything about uniforms. In the natural course of events, collectors removed the original paint and repainted the figures in proper colors. As the practice, or hobby, of repainting spread, the alert German makers started to turn out unpainted castings which the hobbyist could finish himself. Figures also started to appear on the market with engraving of higher relief, in what might be called semi-flat, and eventually fuller-bodied figures were made until they blossomed forth full-around as usually seen in stores today. How-ever, this doesn't mean the little "Flats" are gone, they are still made and still popular, not only with collectors, but for training service as in the days of Frederick and Napoleon.

The early three-dimension figures were in most cases cast in stiff unnatural poses and like the earlier "Flats" were painted in haphazard fashion. Collectors desiring more life-like action started to remove paint and cut arms and legs off, soldering them in more natural positions and then painting in authentic colors. People of like interests seek each other and eventually during the first half of the twentieth century, military miniature clubs were formed where collectors could trade information and figures. Just as the little soldiers' popularity grew until they are being manufactured in almost every country on the face of the globe, so the hobby of making and collecting military miniatures spread until it is a universal pastime today, enjoyed by men, women and children from all walks of life.

The military miniature collector is not an antique collector; his interest is in the authenticity of uniforms and equipment in his miniature collection, and not in how long ago the figures were made. Today there are skilled craftsmen turning out superb lead figures in ac-curate detail that are truly works of art, and collectors with sufficient hobby budgets make collections of these little masterpieces, and often commission the artists to create particular models. There are also miniature makers who create detailed castings of figures in life-like poses and correct uniforms which the collector with a smaller budget, or because he enjoys painting, can assemble and paint in the proper colors. Most of these skilled makers are former hobbyists who started making miniature soldiers for themselves, when they could not find commercial figures to their exacting tastes, and found

One of the early types of "full round" lead soldiers distributed by Mc-Loughlin Brothers of New York. The standing figures are about two inches tall; the mounted figure is cast separately, and can be removed from the horse.

Another group of very early twentieth century lead soldiers which are neither flat nor full-round, as is indicated by the last figure in the group. The mounted figure can be removed from his horse. The designer of this early set was a little careless with scale since the foot figures, which are about two inches tall, are almost as tall as the mounted one.

One type of collector finds his greatest joy in searching for toy soldiers which he can convert into collectors' pieces by changing and adding details such as properly colored insignia and uniforms. Probably the most envied collectors are those who not only do the research, but also create the original model, make the mold, cast the figure and paint the soldier.

The majority of today's collections are made up of the three dimension or full round figures. There are several good reasons for this preference. They are the most life-like, for they have height, width and depth so that they may be viewed from any angle. There are more manufacturers of the full round figures and most of the manufacturers conform to a standard size, foot figures 54 to 55 mm. tall (about 21/8 inches) and other figures in proportion; this gives the collector a great variety to select from. The same scale is found in both the mass-produced inexpensive figures and in the better figures; so the hobbyist can convert the very inexpensive figures to more accurate models by replacing arms, heads, etc., which have been taken from other figures, bought separately or made by the collector himself. The full round figure also permits the addition of flowing capes, packs and other fine details which would not be possible on anything but three dimension figures.

Next in popularity are the famous "Flats" which are still being produced in the same scale set so many years ago by the early soldier makers. Flats are the real "Tin Soldier" of song and story, and are as their name indicates — flat — just about as thick as a dime. They are cast generally from tin and lead and the details, which in most cases are exceptionally good, stand out in high relief like the designs on a coin. The variety of figures and positions obtainable seems almost unlimited, ranging from ancient to modern. Just as these figures served in training for Napoleon's men, they also served in recent wars, and you will find modern soldiers in a variety of action poses with modern weapons. Flats lend themselves well to making shadow boxes and dioramas, which are viewed directly from the front. When seen in this manner they are very effective, because the relief detail and usually good painting give the illusion of depth. The compactness of Flats is also an advantage, since their smaller size requires less space per figure, and storage space is naturally less for the war game enthusiast if he must pack his warriors away after each battle.

Although much of the foregoing has dealt with tin, lead and the more elaborate silver toy figures, this does not mean no miniatures or figurines of soldiers were made from other materials. Military figures were produced in porcelain that were superb in detail and authenticity of uniform and bore the marks of world renowned makers. Potteries of Europe still make many porcelain military figurines, some being cast in the original molds of many years ago. Ceramic military figurines have also been made, and there are hobbyists who, in addition to collecting military miniatures, make ceramics and porcelains that are exceptionally fine pieces even in the small 54 mm. size.

Wood has always been a favorite medium for many artisans and many such figures have been made through the centuries, some crude and some with intricate detail. Both toys and works of art have been produced in wood, and even today there are many fine military miniatures or figurines being carved from wood. An outstanding example of fine wooden figures are those depicting the Scottish uniforms, made by Pilkington-Jackson and on display at the Naval and Military Museum in Edinburgh.

Wood has also been used in making models of various machines of war and military wagons. Wooden figures have also been clothed with real cloth, leather and metal, having all the clothing and equipment in exact detail, even down to the embossing on the tiny buttons. Even mixtures of wood pulp have been cast around wire armatures to make miniature soldiers.

Probably one of the oldest types of soldiers that are still being made are those of cardboard. These are to be found, both hand painted and printed, and in a variety of sizes. Cardboard cut-out soldiers are usually referred to as "Alsatian Soldiers" because for many years the making of cardboard soldiers was a specialty of Alsace. It is recorded that Louis XV played with a set of card-board soldiers, consisting of infantry and cavalry, that is believed to be from pieces of uniforms given to Sandre by fellow prisoners. Even the small buttons, less than one-sixteenth inch in diameter, are fully embossed in detail with the Napoleonic eagle.

The figures are fourteen and one-half inches tall not including headgear and base. To the right of each figure is a standard 54mm lead figure and to the left a 30mm flat. From left to right are shown; Sapeur of the grenadiers, lancer and a fusilier grenadier.

There have been plastic figures for some years, but needless to say, the great boom in plastics of recent years has brought floods of plastic soldiers on the market, and they can be found on toy counters throughout the world. Like the items made of other materials, some are crude and others rival the finest examples made of metal. They are made not only in finished miniatures, but also in kits from which the hobbyist may assemble and paint his own figures. How much favor plastics will gain with the old dyed-in-the-wool collector is yet to be seen, but the quality of workmanship and detail in many is certainly worthy of note. Some of the old timers, even though they do not wholly approve of plastics, still use them as models in making figures of metal, and this in itself is the most sincere compliment that could be paid to the plastic figures, even if they don't have the heft of metal.

The heritage of the miniature soldier is a long and noble one and his popularity and esteem grows with each succeeding year. More and more he appears in world-famous museums to recreate scenes from history and events of today. School children are deeply impressed by small figures moved about on miniature stages and sand tables, recreating events of history, and they absorb their lessons more quickly because it's fun to learn from three-dimensional miniatures. Military school instructors are turning everyday to miniatures as aids in instructing cadets in the arts of war, because tactics are understood more easily when students can see and move troops and equipment. Military commanders encourage their troops to become military miniature hobbyists, because miniature collecting leads to historic research and eventually, in many cases, to the study of military tactics. And thousands of people are making and collecting military miniatures as a form of relaxation.

Only a bold and ambitious person indeed would at-tempt to set down a chronological, minutely-detailed history of model soldiers, listing their types and makers along with all the famous collectors of the past and present. Accurate records can be found on many collectors and manufacturers, but there have been hundreds of makers whose production was small and in many cases known only in their local areas. Even today new makers come on the scene periodically, some to be recognized only in their immediate locality, others to gain international fame among collectors for a few years or even months and then to pass out of the picture, while still others" remain constant on the scene and their names become synonymous with the types of figures they pro-duce. No longer does Europe monopolize the miniature soldier field in manufacturing or collecting, for today military miniatures are made and collected all over the globe, with the United States fast becoming a leader in the production of inexpensive, medium class and finely detailed models that rival the figures made by the best artisans of the old world.

Ladies of the Court. The fair sex who enjoy a definite place in military miniature collections—princesses, queens and mistresses, as well as military leaders such as Joan of Arc—have been created in miniature. Dioramas have been built depicting slave markets, victory marches and battle scenes in which women are an important part.

No attempt has been made here to write a complete history of so vast a subject, but rather just an outline recalling episodes in the widespread story of model soldiers. Details of types and lengthy lists of statistics have been purposely avoided, because the military miniature collector does not base the value of his collection on rarity as collectors of stamps, coins, and antiques do, but on perfection of detail, workmanship and authenticity of uniforms and equipment. The true military miniature collector cares nothing about the age of a figure, for he is primarily a lover of books and research, deciding for himself what figures from what period interest him and, if such models do not exist, he converts another figure, creates a figure himself, or commissions someone to make it for him.



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