Dime-store Doughboys

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Commercially made metal toy soldiers date back to the late eighteenth century, when German tinsmiths began casting two-dimensional or “flat” figures of the sort immortalized by Hans Christian Andersen in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.” European firms went on to develop sturdier, solid-cast three-dimensional figures of lead alloy, and in the 189Os an English toy maker named William Britain revolutionized the field with a line of less costly hollow-cast toy troops. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the United States developed a uniquely American toy soldier. Sold mainly in the five-and-dime stores, especially the F. W. Woolworth chain, they came to be known as dime-store soldiers.

Rugged and robust, the dime-store doughboys stood 3¼ inches high—a head taller than most of their European counterparts. They were simple and functional, and only rarely did the companies that produced them venture beyond the drab khaki uniform of the twentieth-century combat infantryman. But the dime-store doughboys made up for their homogenous hue with a vitality found in few other toy soldiers. Until recently dime-store figures were disdained by collectors, who preferred more sophisticated European types. Now, after decades of neglect, they not only have found a following among toy-soldier collectors but are being appreciated by a wider audience as a kind of twentieth-century folk art.

The largest and best known of the dime-store soldier firms was the Barclay Manufacturing Company, named after a street in West Hoboken, New Jersey, where it was founded in 1924. At first producing standard-size (2¼-inch) toy soldiers, complete with movable arms, Barclay brought out in 1934 the first of a line of 3¼-inch hollow-cast lead figures. These early figures are referred to by collectors as “short stride” because the legs of marching soldiers are close together, giving them a rather stiff look. An improved, more realistic version, known as “long stride,” went on sale in 1937.

 
 
 
 

Barclay’s pre-war figures are easily recognized by their separately cast World War I-style tin helmets and their distinctive half-moon eyelids. They depict American soldiers on the march or in combat. A smaller group of metal figures, representing civilians, included cowboys, ice skaters, railroad passengers, and station personnel. Occasionally the company was influenced by world events: it issued Italian and Ethiopian combatants when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and Chinese and Japanese soldiers during the 1937 Manchurian campaign. Barclay’s enormous popularity is indicated by the expansion of its work force from a few dozen in 1934 to four hundred just before the Second World War, when the firm was turning out several million castings a year.

 

During the war, Barclay, like other manufacturers of metal toy soldiers, suspended operations. When production resumed after the war, the figures were gradually reduced in size, their stands eventually discarded in favor of what became known as pod feet (really a small, round base under each foot). The pod-foot series, begun in the 1950s, presented a new range of GIs, armed with modern weapons such as Tommy guns and bazookas. But even with the addition of a series of railroad figures scaled to the popular HO-gauge toy trains, Barclay never enjoyed the same success after the war that it had in the 1930s. When the company finally closed its doors in 1971—the last major American maker to do so —fewer than seventy-five employees were still on the payroll.

Barclay’s greatest rival was Manoil, a novelty firm founded by two brothers, Jack and Maurice Manoil, in 1928. Its toy soldiers, first issued in 1935, were designed by Walter Baetz, an exceptionally gifted sculptor who produced what are perhaps the most distinctive dime-store figures. Energetic and jaunty, they had an air of caricature about them that became more noticeable as the years went by.

Responding to pacifist pressures, Manoil brought out a line of civilian figures under the label “The Happy Farm,” which featured a variety of country folk—some forty types in all. Farmers sowed grain, harvested with a scythe, and pitched hay, while women churned butter, cooked, washed laundry, and performed other domestic chores. Also included were bricklayers, hod carriers, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other laborers.

 
 
 

By the late 1930s the company had outgrown its Manhattan birthplace; in 1940 it moved to more spacious quarters in Waverly, New York. Here 225 workers, mostly women and high school students, cleaned, painted, and assembled the castings. In the months preceding America’s entry into the Second World War, Manoil consumed sixty tons of metal every week to produce several hundred thousand toys.