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The World of Model Soldiers

Part 2 : Model Soldiers from 1800 to 1939

In France in about 1790, a man called Lucotte began to produce toy soldiers in French army uniforms. These figures are reputedly the first to have appeared on the commercial market in the style which is termed ronde-bosse. Ronde-bosse figures (also known as 'solids') are three-dimensional figures, round in the sense that the human body is round, as opposed to the two-dimensional figures which are called 'flats'. Lucotte continued his work for the better part of 50 years, producing models of not only the French army but of many other European armies, civilians, Africans, and anything else which caught his fancy.

In 1825 three other Frenchmen, Cuperly, Blondel, and Gerbeau, founded a firm in competition with Lucotte to make their own solid figures. Their trademark was C.B.G. They eventually absorbed Lucotte only to be taken over by the firm of Mignot some years later. Mignot still produce toy soldiers of good quality from their works in Paris.

In Germany, manufacturers continued to produce flat figures. From these evolved the semi-flat, half-round figure, until, in about 1870, they finally started producing solids. Two firms, well known to collectors, are Haffner of Fuerth and Heyde of Dresden.

The round figures that were made at this time tended to be soft in appearance without much detail. They were made of lead or a lead-tin alloy, sometimes with the addition of some antimony, which is one of the few metals that expands as it cools, thus pressing into the contours of the mould and producing a crisper model. Very little attention was given to animation and the figures were normally cast in shallow metal moulds in a slightly spread-eagle fashion. The arms where then bent to the required position, the small flags often being soldered on at a later stage. This gives the early figures a somewhat curious appearance in that their arms don't have elbows but appear to be made of tubes, rather like a slimmer brother of the Michelin Type man.

The figures were attractively packaged in boxes often coloured deep red or maroon and embellished with a variety of gold medals won at exhibitions and fairs throughout the world, for the quality of their workmanship and the artistry that had gone into making them. They found a ready market in middle-class homes all over Europe.

Tin soldiers started to arrive on the British market in about 1850 and were received enthusiastically by the children. The market was dominated by the French and Germans for many years up until almost the turn of the century, the most prolific exporters being Heinrichsen, Allgeyer, and Haffner. The Heinrichsen firm had been founded in 1839 and for the next 100 years developed into one of the most important in this field. The company produced a book on war games for children and helped to standardize the height of 30 mm for foot soldiers, the other figures being in proportion. Not only was there an enormous range of models, but the style and standard of workmanship was superior to all their rivals, except, perhaps, Allgeyer, the master engraver of Fuerth. Competition, but only in quantity, was offered by Haffner, who worked in the same town.

By the turn of the century the situation was to change dramatically. In the 1890s the aptly named William Britain, of North London, who was already well known for his mechanical toys and other inventions, started to produce toy soldiers. He discovered that he was able to cast metal soldiers by what is called the slush-casting, or hollow-casting process, which leaves the centre of the figure hollow.

In the competitive Victorian world, any improvement in a product that would save money in what was rapidly becoming a mass market meant that its exponent must reap the lion's share of the available market. This had been created over many years by the continental manufacturers and the solid figure was selling very well throughout Britain and continental Europe, as well as in North America. William Britain, because he was manufacturing in England, could save time, transportation, and the inevitable customs and duty costs that any import would attract, and even if he had been casting solid figures, he could have marketed them at a cheaper price than his European competitors. As it was, he was casting a hollow figure, therefore using much less metal, which enabled him to make even greater savings.

Britain's figures soon became popular and within a few years his firm, in enlarged premises, had a catalogue of hundreds of different items. Not only were the figures cheaper than the German imports, they were more accurate in detail, were painted to a very high standard and attractively presented, and, most important to collectors of model armies, they were 54 mm in size.