Fifty years ago these rough-and-ready tin soldiers were sold from bins cheap and by the handful. Today collectors are seeking them for their bright, simple vitality.
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.
Manoil’s operations were suspended during World War II, after a brief, unsuccessful effort to produce composition figures. The company reopened in 1945 with a new line of GIs, in World War II battle dress, but never regained its pre-war popularity. The firm hobbled along until the mid-1950s, finally closing shortly after the death of Jack Manoil, in 1955.
The third of the triumvirate of major dime-store makers was Grey Iron of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, which has been in operation under various names since 1840. In 1917, shortly after the United States entered World War I, the firm brought out its “Greyklip Armies,” a series of nickel-plated troops that cost a modest ten cents for a carded set of ten infantry or five cavalry. Grey Iron began issuing three-inch cast-iron dimestore soldiers in 1933; the roster included American Revolutionary War troops, West Point cadets, and doughboys. By mid-1936 the firm was distributing its “Iron Men” series, which were better designed than earlier models and stood a full 3¼ inches, bringing them into line with those of Barclay and Manoil. Simple in design, Grey Iron’s soldiers were perhaps the least imaginative of all the dime-store figures.
However, the company did produce an interesting civilian range called “The American Family” that featured 2¼-inch figures scaled to 0-gauge trains. One set, “The American Family on the Beach,” enjoyed such props as a lifeboat, a cabana, and a section of boardwalk.
Although Grey Iron survived the postwar doldrums that finished off most of its competitors—and even produced a new group, American Continental soldiers, in the 1950s—the toysoldier part of the business never really revived after the war. But the company remains in business today (a division of the Donsco Corporation), producing mechanical banks and other cast-iron toys.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, rising production costs, competition from cheaper plastic figures, and laws against the use of lead in toys forced one after another of the dimestore companies to close its doors. When Barclay cooled its molds for the last time in 1971, the era of the American metal toy soldier came to an end. Like their British, French, and German cousins, the Barclay, Manoil, and Grey Iron troops have gone to the Valhalla reserved for toys that have faithfully performed their playtime duties. Now they are valued by collectors and remembered with pleasure by former fiveand-dime customers who, as youngsters, would pluck them out of bins at five cents apiece.