Toy soldiers (British Coldstream Guards)
Toy soldiers (British Coldstream Guards)

About 1760, Johann Hilpert, a master pewterer in Nuremburg, saw commercial possibilities in the small, flat toy figures that he was making for his children from the excess pewter left over when manufacturing kitchenware.  Initially, he made animals and theatrical and farming figures but real success came when he made a series of soldiers to commemorate the victories of Frederick the Great in the Seven Years War. Hilpert’s success stimulated an industry of making flat “tin” soldiers (actually pewter) in many parts of Germany which lasted into the 20th century.

Another Nuremburg manufacturer, Ernst Heinrichsen, established a standard scale for tin soldiers (30cm tall) which allowed toys from different manufacturers to be mixed. This became known as the Nuremburg scale. 

Experiments with solid (rather than flat) figures were made in Germany but the first successful manufacturer was a Parisian company called Lucotte. This company was taken over and, in 1838,  became Mignot, under which name the best French toy soldiers have been made ever since. 

But it was not until 1893, when the English company, William Britain and Sons patented hollow casting, that lead cast toys became really popular. (In hollow casting, a lead allow is poured into an engraved mould and the still-molten alloy in the centre is poured out before it solidifies. This produces much more finely detailed, yet lighter and cheaper, figures than solid casting.) William Brittain and Sons grew until the Second World War and then declined until it ceased production in 1966. Collectors recognize two golden periods of the firm’s products – the years before the First World War (Models from this period are called “ancient Britains”) and the 1930s, when many new series were produced.

Did you know?

During the 19th century, following the French support for the Americans in the War of Independence, French imports were popular in America Abraham Lincoln played with French Mignot toy soldiers with his son, Tad.  

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