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The World of Model Soldiers


Part 1 (cont'd.) : Early Model Soldiers

The famous Hilpert family was one of the first to popularize tin figures, their production beginning in about 1770. Their stock was taken over by J.L.Stahl, who continued the business during the Napoleonic wars. The success of the trade attracted other manufacturers, among them Bestermaier and Catel.

Gradually the fame of the Nuremberg toy makers spread throughout Germany, both North and South, and then, as figures began to be exported, to the rest of Europe. Berlin, Fuerth, and Strasbourg began to rival Nuremberg as centres of production. Foundries also sprang up in other European countries - Sweden, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, and Italy - in an attempt to satisfy the demand for the figures.

Among the makers who continued along the path made by the Hilperts were Allgeyer, Ammon, Engels, Gottschalk, Lorenz, Rammon, and Wehrli. Tin figures were exported in small quantities to start with, but then in increasing numbers as the skill of the artists improved and the style and range of the castings increased. Manufacturers started to publish catalogues which would illustrate for the children of various countries, and possibly their fathers as well, the range and variety of the figures available.

The catalogues were often hand coloured and usually written in German, although some were translated into French and English. The methods employed by the flat-soldier makers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries differed very little from those employed today.

The artist or sculptor carves in reverse into a block of slate and makes an outline of the model he wishes to create by carefully cutting with sharp tools. The cavity produced will eventually form one side of the figure. He then coats the remaining flat surface of the slate with carbon or chalk and presses it against another piece of slate which is to become the other half of the mould.

By pressing the two surfaces together the carbon or chalk will be deposited on to the blank surface, but it will, of course, only mark the piece of slate where the two surfaces come into contact. The artist uses the outline thus formed to cut out the second half of the mould. He then puts both halves together, cuts airlines out of the mould so that air can escape when the hot metal is poured in, and also pouring lines to enable the metal, the lead or tin mixture, to be poured into the mould.

The cavity, when filled up with metal, produces the model figures. To date, the manufacturers of flat soldiers have produced figures of every conceivable subject, both military and civilian, ranging back in time to the Stone Ages and forward into the realms of fantasy and science fiction. The figure makers have not restricted themselves to the human form, but have produced a variety of animals, trees, buildings, bridges, tanks, lorries, guns and other weapons of war, an assortment of farmyard accessories and buildings, parts of royal palaces, triumphal gateways, and so on.

They have also made figures to represent almost every activity that human beings have ever engaged in: court scenes, farm scenes, village scenes, sex scenes, and battle scenes. And in the military sphere there are parades, engagements, combats, scenes depicting the aftermath of warfare, men and horses stationary or in motion, soldiers firing and being fired upon, living and dying.

Thus to limit oneself purely to the world of model soldiers would be to ignore the host of other figures that are on the market and that have been produced over hundreds of years. And wherever there are soldiers, there are civilians.

There was never a parade without small boys and dogs, and never a camp without followers. In Britain and the United States flat tin figures, although very popular about 100 years ago, gradually declined in popularity because the figures which were imported became more expensive and were gradually overtaken by home-produced items.

These invariably were not flat soldiers but fully round figures similar to those many of us played with as children. Although they were often larger, they could be marketed at a much lower price because of lower distribution costs, and the fact that taxation and import duties were not levied on them.

Therefore, as there was no home market in existence for flat soldiers, the flat figure almost disappeared outside its native land before World War I for, as the home-produced figures were hollow cast, no one ever bothered to return to what were considered the old-fashioned flat tin soldiers.

In Germany and central Europe the flat tin figure still reigns supreme, the rounded French, British, and later, American model soldiers never usurped the place of the former in the hearts of collectors, and the preferences of a father were passed to his son, and then to his grandson.

During the years of World War I and for many years after, while Germany was recovering from the economic depression, the flat tin soldier was not available, and so the round lead figure gained in popularity up until the time that the figures were no longer made for children because the high lead content in them was found to be harmful.