News From Terre Haute, Indiana

February 1, 2014

Historical Treasure: Toy soldiers: Marching through the ages

Patrick Newsham
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — While visiting a toy store, what might have caught your eye, standing lined up in ranks in a grand display? Toy soldiers! For more than two centuries, people of all ages have enjoyed this pastime. Figures of soldiers were first made as children’s toys in Europe in the 18th century. These early toy soldiers were made of wood or more precious material, such as silver. Toward the end of the 18th century, metalworkers began producing inexpensive, mostly two-dimensional figures out of tin, which were sold in sets called flats. By the end of the 19th century, more realistic three-dimensional figures became popular.

This week’s historical treasure is one of these more recent toy soldiers, a mounted soldier on a white horse. The figure stands around three inches tall, appears to be dressed in a uniform from the American Revolution and is wearing a tricorne hat. The toy soldier was cast in two parts, with the join being visible on the underside of the horse. Judging by the weight, the soldier is most likely made out of a tin-and-lead alloy, and is probably painted with oil-based enamel paint.

Toy soldiers have had an interesting history that spans into the literary realm. Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” which was published in 1838. The story follows a tin soldier who falls in love with a paper ballerina, ending with them both being consumed by flames in the fireplace, wherein the soldier melts into the shape of a heart. In 1913, H.G. Wells published the book “Little Wars,” in which he outlined detailed rules for playing war games with toy soldiers. This latter work gives an interesting glimpse into the gender roles of an earlier age. The subtitle to “Little Wars” reads as follows: “A game for boys from 12 years of age to 150 and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.”

Come to the Vigo County Historical Museum to see this interesting toy soldier as well as many other children’s toys from an earlier time.