of Model Soldiers
Part 1 : Early
Model figures have been made by man from the time that he was first sufficiently civilised to be able to model clay and to use the primitive tools; and model soldiers, as opposed to ordinary human figures, were made from the time of the earliest soldiers having a uniform, instead of a purely warlike appearance.
Crude drawings of model figures - not necessarily of soldiers - have been found in some of the earliest human settlements. One of the earliest collections of model soldiers belonged to the Chinese cavalry commander, Chang, and was found in the province of Wu Wei in 1969; another belonged to the Egyptian prince, Emsah, who lived about 2.000 years before the birth of Christ.
These two may have been posthumous collectors in that both collections were found in the tombs of their owners as were most of the earliest known models. Reproductions of other early Chinese figures have been on sale in China for many years and are still sold there. They are usually of a wire frame surmounted by a china or porcelain covering and then hand painted.
Around the Mediterranean there have been finds of bronze model figures from Ancient Greece; and flat tin figures of Romans, and Roman soldiers, have been found throughout Europe - one of the best known being the figure of a legionary found in Germany at Mainz. Greece, the Mediterranean islands, Mexico, and Peru all have claims to be the sites of early manufactories of model soldiers and figures fashioned from metal, terra cotta, clay, and stone which are arguably military in style.
Many of the model figures of the Middle Ages were probably religious tokens. Made of lead-tin alloy because of the ease of production, they were given, or more usually sold, to pilgrims who had made a journey to a holy place. They would have been made by local craftsmen, used to casting in soft metal, who would doubtless also have sold these tokens and badges in markets and at fairs. Playing with model soldiers was very popular in the Middle Ages among the children of noble households and they used to stage tournaments using model knights.
There is an illustration in the medieval manuscript, the Hortus Deliciarum, which depicts two children manipulating foot knights on a table top, and by the use of strings making them engage in combat. Many items thought to be toys could in reality have been models or miniature replicas, made as samples of the armourer's art. However, miniature weapons and suits of armour were produced in considerable quantities as toys for the children of wealthy families, and many have survived to the present time.
In the 1600s the French kings had collections of soldiers often made of precious metals. Louis XIII and Louis XIV both had magnificent model armies with figures made of silver, lead, wood, pottery, and paper. Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden had troops of bronze. And in subsequent centuries many rulers were to have fine collections.
The King of Rome, Napoleon II, had soldiers made of gold, the Prince Elector of Bavaria, men of wood. Frederick the Great of Prussia showed interest in lead soldiers, and Napoleon III also collected them together with Czar Nicholas I, Czar Peter III, Alfonso XIII of Spain, Kaiser Wilhelm II, the King of Hannover, and Frederick William III of Prussia.
During this early stage in the development of model and toy soldiers there does not appear to be any recorded use of them in the countries of Asia, in Russia, or in the New World apart from the goods made in precious or semi-precious material by craftsmen.
A variety of toys and puppets do survive from the Far-East - most of them shadow puppets in fierce and warlike poses. There is also a model of a tiger, symbolising India, eating a redcoat (the British Raj), which dates from the middle of the eighteenth century.
However, as far as we are concerned, the history of model soldiers and the collecting of model soldiers begins in the second half of the eighteenth century in Southern Germany when manufacturers in Nuremberg, which has always been famous for its lead and tin products, began to make figures of men and animals, and Nativity scenes from the childhood of Christ. The dealers sold them at fairs and in markets and, mainly due to their cheapness, these figures soon became very popular. They were easy to make, being flat and relatively unsophisticated, and were cast from lead or tin, or a mixture of both, in shallow moulds.
It was as easy to make a mould as it was to engrave a woodcut or a lithographic plate and so long as a man had sufficient skill he could cut moulds all day long. Once the mould was cut, of course, the production of tin figures was a task that could be given to a relatively unskilled person.
Therefore, one artist could supply a whole industry; he would carve the mould, others would cast from it, and the casting would be painted, boxed, and then sold. Sometimes, of course, one man, with perhaps the assistance of his family, carried out all the stages of production.
The stallholder at the market would arrange his figures (Zinnfiguren, tin figures, or bleisoldated, lead soldiers, as they are known in German) in boxes, tubs, or bundles on his stall and the children could buy them on a pick-and-miss basis.They could select as many of the castings as they liked and were charged purely on the weight of the metal contained in them.
Therefore, a small tree would cost less than a foot soldier, a horse soldier would be equal to about three foot soldiers, and a large tree would probably weigh the same as two horse soldiers. The larger the piece, the greater the weight, and thus, the greater the price. This was a very simple but exceedingly effective method of pricing the castings and without it the stallholder would have had to have been a mathematician to work out the different prices for each item.