Toy Soldiers (Tin Soldiers)

Toy soldiers, tin soldiers, or model soldiers are miniature figures representing soldiers from ancient times to the present day. They come in different sizes, usually between 30 millimeters and 75 millimeters measured between the base plate and the eyes to compensate for the height of the head-gear. Different types of toy soldiers are the so-called flats, paper-thin castings painted and shaded to look three-dimensional. Semiflats are a few millimeters thicker, and in the case of cavalry, often produced with a semiflat horse and a round rider. The most popular today are the round, solid, or hollow-cast figures.

Toy soldiers are used by children to play with, but can also be used by adults to fight war games as a pastime or for instructive purposes. Toy soldiers–old and new–as well as the expensive and detailed model soldiers that are produced by cottage industries in several countries, are popular collectors' items.

Boys have always been intrigued by war toys. When the Egyptian prince Emsah was buried almost four thousand years ago, he was accompanied in his grave by a unique collection of toy soldiers, which today shoulder by shoulder march steadfastly forward on their wooden bases in the museum in Cairo. Before the modern period, toys were a luxury reserved for the rich and powerful. The French queen Marie de'Medici gave her young son, the future King Louis XIII three hundred silver toy soldiers. The royal collection at Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen has a collection of silver soldiers made by the silversmith Fabritius for King Frederick IV. French king Louis XIV had a similar army, which however was melted down during the economic crisis of 1715. Catherine the Great of Russia wrote in her autobiography that Tsar Peter III as a young boy had several hundred toy soldiers made of wood, lead, starch, and wax: "They were all paraded on festive occasions, and a special arrangement of springs which could be released by pulling a string, produced a sound as if they fired their guns." It comes as no surprise, then, that the French emperor Napoleon presented his son, the king of Rome, with a large number of toy soldiers. The finest were a set of 117 gold figures made by the goldsmith Claude Odinot.

Toy soldiers as they are known today appeared around the middle of the eighteenth century. Among the first producers of flat figures were the Hilpert family of Nuremberg, Germany. The figures were inspired by the colorful uniforms of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Prussian king Frederick the Great. It is probably figures of this type that inspired the Danish fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Steadfast Tin Soldier."

The first literary reference to round and solid figures, rather than flat figures, was in the German poet Goethe's Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and truth). Goethe describes a boy and a girl who are playing with some tin soldiers that are "round, solid, and meticulously made." The French producer Lucotte started his work before 1789 but no figures made before 1850 were known to still be in existence in the early twenty-first century. One of the greatest collections of these figures are preserved at Blenheim Castle in England, and belonged to the British wartime prime minister Sir Winston Churchill. He describes his army in his biography My Early Life: "I had almost 1500 of the same size, all British and organised in an infantry division and a cavalry brigade. I had 15 fieldpieces but lacked a train. My father's old friend, Sir Drummond Wolff, noticed this and created a fund, which to a certain extent remedied this."

The Lucotte Company was bought by the French toy firm Cuperlu, Blondel and Gerbeau, in 1825, which was bought in turn by Mignot in 1876. Mignot continued to exist into the twenty-first century. Besides soldiers, the company produced a number of interesting sets, including a picturesque group of firefighters and vehicles from the Paris Fire Brigade, circa 1900.

The most prolific toy soldier manufacturers were the German manufacturer Georg Heyde and the British toy maker William Britain. Heyde made 4.5 centimeter round, solid figures, with interchangeable heads so that each body could be used to represent the armies of a number of countries. Britain founded his company in 1893 and developed a special metal-saving way of casting hollow figures that became very popular. His first figure represented a British guardsman in red tunic and black bearskin hat, which was quickly followed by a multitude of soldiers from the British Indian army, from the Boer War, World War I, the Abyssinian war, and World War II, complete with guns, vehicles, and airplanes. Britain was still producing toy soldiers into the twenty-first century, but the figures became far too expensive to be used as toys and were mostly directed towards collectors. Toy soldiers today are almost exclusively unpainted plastic figures.

Between the world wars the German companies Elastolin and Lineol produced a large range of 75 millimeter resin figures, representing soldiers from many countries–although the majority of toys represented German soldiers and Nazi party leaders, such as Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering. Elastolin and Lineol, like Britain and other makers, also made an extensive line of farm people, animals, and equipment.

See also: Construction Toys; Dolls; Toys; War in the Twentieth Century.


Fontana, Dennis. 1991. The War Toys 2. London: New Cavendish Books.

Opre, James. 1985. Britain's Toy Soldiers 1893–1932. London: Victor Gollancz.

Polaine, Reggie and David Hawkins. 1991 [1976]. The War Toys 1. London: New Cavendish Books.