A purchase made with a relatively small amount of money is eagerly brought home. A cardboard header card illustrated with an attractive vividly coloured scene of battle action and a price tag is loudly ripped off the top of a transparent plastic bag. The contents, identically coloured bits of plastic, are dumped onto the floor landing with a quiet rattle. Their owner sorts them, then stands them up onto their bases transforming the plastic soldiers into an infantry platoon going into combat. The child is transformed into an infantry platoon leader or the old former platoon leader is transformed back into a child...
It is impossible to discover when the first toy soldiers appeared. The Brontë sisters wrote about their wooden soldiers in the late 1820s. Hans Christian Andersen, the son of a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars published his tale of The Steadfast Tin Soldier in 1838. Robert Louis Stevenson used memories of his flat tin soldiers in A Child's Garden of Verses published in 1885. In 1881 a seven year old Winston Churchill received his first German made solid metal soldiers that led him to a military and political career, whilst an adult H.G. Wells recorded his playing with Britains hollowcast metal figures in his 1913 Little Wars.
Though plastic materials were first made in the mid 19th century, it was not until 1938 that soldiers were made in plastic in the USA by the Bergen Toy & Novelty Company, or 'Beton' for short. Competing with their taller metal brethren, these painted figures were sold for a nickel (5 cents) a piece, a figure of cash within a child's range comparable to the price of a candy bar. Soldiers were also sold in a small group tied in an attractive box that a parent or relative could purchase for a special birthday or Christmas gift. Another American firm, Universal Plastics began in 1939 with a similar product. Beton acquired their moulds in 1940 and redid the Universal soldier's headgear to be sold alongside Beton's figures.
The attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into World War II led to the manufacture of metal toy soldiers being stopped in late 1942. Children wanting soldiers had choices of Beton's plastic, paper, or composition material. Following the end of the war, the metal soldier companies of Barclay and Manoil returned their soldiers to American dimestores. The soldier's or marine's M1917 World War I helmet worn during the gallant defeats of Guam, Wake Island, Java and the Philippines were crudely transformed into a facsimile of the M1 helmet worn in the offensives in Europe, Burma and the Pacific.
Following the end of the Second World War, plastics that were inexpensive and pliable were the modern miracle product. New plastic toy companies or plastic companies expanding into toy manufacture challenged the traditional soldier companies with unpainted plastic figures. A pair of World War II veterans, Milton Levine and his brother-in-law E. Joseph Cossman contracted with the NOSCO plastic company (the plastics moulding division of the National Organ Supply Company who also produced prizes for Cracker Jack) to sell by mail a product advertised in comic books;-a then unbelievable offer of 100 toy soldiers for a dollar (though the price would later rise). The owner of these toy soldiers was no longer a Corporal squad leader but a General or a Supreme Commander with an assortment of various aircraft, ships, tanks, vehicles and soldiers to launch full scale invasions. The fact that the figures in this first playset were two dimensional flat soldiers was not found out until opening the package...
The Tim Mee company, named for a nephew of one of the employees, began around 1948 as a branch of the Anchor Brush Company. Tim Mee sold their unpainted figures in a relatively unbreakable plastic for 5 cents whilst Beton's figures had risen to a dime. Tim Mee also sold their figures in various sized bags with header cards ranging from 29 cents to 98 cents. The sculpting of figures in plastic could often be of a high quality showing a variety of detail. The improvements in plastic led to figures being cast in one colour, such as green or khaki and led to identical figures moulded in different colours to be used as different armies.
The major toy companies such as Louis Marx & Company, Ideal Toy Company, Multiple Plastics Corporation (MPC) and a host of others followed with their own plastic soldiers in the early 1950s. With the price of metal rising during the Korean War, the costs of plastic lowered through being produced in large quantities, and later fears of metal toys being a health threat made the plastic soldier supreme. The children of America came up with a new name for these plastic soldiers: 'army men'.
Due to the economies of plastic, a small platoon of soldiers was easily affordable by most children. What would a parent buy a lucky child fascinated by soldiers as a gift for that special occasion? Louis Marx came to the rescue as he brought the world the playset. For an economical price a surprised child opened a box to discover not only soldiers and vehicles, but terrain features, buildings, bridges, airplanes, landing craft, paratroopers, barbed wire fences....all in three dimensional unbreakable plastic! The playset became an envied feature of Christmas or birthdays.
As their popularity increased the military playset evolved from a military training centre in 1951 to a 'Battleground' at the end of the 50s with two armies of American soldiers and Marines moulded in winter olive drab and summer khaki. In 1963 Marx led the way with actual Germans and then Japanese soldiers in the following year for the Americans to fight instead of cowboys or spacemen figures. In 1965, British, French and Russian allies, or enemies depending on the feelings of their Supreme Commander appeared. The other soldier companies such as MPC, Lido and Tim Mee followed with their own foreign troops.
From the end of the 1950s the soldiers decreased in cost when they were often produced offshore in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. This lead the owners of Beton to sell their company due to their realising they could never compete with the low production and labour costs of the Orient.
What were the advantages of the unbreakable plastic soldier or 'army man'? For the first time a young military leader-
- had a large amount of soldiers for a cheap price often within the reach of a child's allowance or money from chores
- had soldiers with bayonets and weapon barrels that would rarely break off letting the figures being used in rough combat and able to be stored jam packed together in bags or boxes
- had soldiers who could float in the water, survive in the mud, snow and long grass or being stepped on without breaking or having paint flake off
As of this moment, the very name of 'armymen' may be due for extinction. Not because of a politically correct crank, but due to a then seven year old Arkansas second grader named Vivian Lord.
Vivian sent a letter to several toymakers asking them to make plastic army women after noticing that none of the toy soldiers she acquired were female.
"Why do you not make girl army men[?],” Vivian wrote in her letter. “My friend’s mom is in the Army to[o] so why don’t you make them to[o]?”
The only toymaker to respond to Vivian's letter was Jeff Imel, the president of BMC Toys in Scranton, Pennsylvania. When he saw Vivian's letter, he decided to make it happen, telling a newspaper-
"Every kid deserves to be the hero of their own story at playtime".
The figures will soon be available to generals of all ages and sexes though BMC Toys. The armyman and armywoman, like the US Infantry, remains the 'Queen of Battle'. Follow me!
Author Notes: I am the author of three Extra Dimensional/Ultraterrestial military science fiction novels MERCENARY EXOTIQUE, OPERATION CHUPACABRA and WORK IN OTHER WORLDS FROM YOUR OWN HOME! as well as two travel books THE MAN FROM WAUKEGAN and TWO AUSTRALIANS IN SCOTLAND. I live happily ever after with my wife in paradise (coastal Kiama, NSW Australia).