Friday, November 11, 2016

The continuing lure of toy soldiers

This is an article that I wrote for Civil War Times about six years ago.  It was never published as the focus wasn't exactly what the editor wanted.  A second try was more successful and was published in CWT a few years later. 
I hope you enjoy it.
Though usually unnamed, most of the greatest Civil War battles have occurred on bedroom floors, tabletops, and backyard gardens.  Fearsome phalanxes of plastic toy soldiers have engaged in mortal (if only temporary) combat, generaled by generations of boys, and occasionally girls, to triumphant victory, staggering defeat, or the unsatisfying stalemate that is precipitated by bedtime.

The children of the post-World War Two era were the beneficiaries of the abundance of cheap and versatile plastics developed during that conflict. Companies such as Lido, Ideal, Topper, Remco, and Marx were manufacturing a variety of Civil War-themed toys in an abundance prompted by the Civil War Centennial of the early 1960s.

In the closing years of the 1950’s, toy magnate Louis Marx released the first Civil War play set marketed through the Sears catalogue.  Marx figures were remarkable in their day for detail, sculpting, and the animation of the realistic poses.  The Marx “Blue and Gray” play set was a wonder of fun.  The set included an exploding bunker, antebellum mansion, boulders, trees, a horse-drawn limber, cannons and seacoast mortars (that fired little projectiles) fences, breastworks, horses, an army ambulance, and armloads of 54mm scale toy soldiers molded in plastic of blue or gray.  A focal point of nearly every tabletop or bedroom floor battle was the plastic Burnside Bridge – style bridge that completed the set.

Presented with this playset on my 10th birthday I was the envy of all my friends, and the bane of their parents as the nagging began; and soon more and more boys were showing up at school with five or six Marx “Civil War guys” in their grimy pockets.

I was typical of many boys of that generation who began a lifetime interest in the American Civil War.  Now, that same generation of older, sometimes wiser, paunchy and world-weary baby-boomers frequently find themselves scouring the screens of eBay hoping to score a little piece of their childhood.

Most of those beloved Marx figures have been recast and are now available from many toy soldier vendors.  Newer companies including Toy soldiers of San Diego, Barzo, Replicants, BMC, Conte, and the aptly-named Armies in Plastic carry on the tradition with exciting new poses with, in most instances, superior sculpting and animation compared to the old Marx figures, but usually at premium cost.

John Zabawa’s shop Gettysburg Miniatures Soldiers provides the full range of toy solders from the inexpensive BMC/Americana line to the very high-end miniatures including W. Britains and King and Country. Although these are called "miniatures, rather than toy soldiers, I still happily play with them. 

In business for the last 14 years John, like many others, first became interested in the Civil War when he received that classic book “The Golden Book of the Civil War” with its fascinating battle maps populated with tiny soldiers, evocative of toy soldiers.  At age 10 John was presented with the Lois Marx Blue and Gray playset, and he has been immersed in the world of toy soldiers ever since.

Over a decade-and-a-half in the same location, John has seen many changes in the industry, especially in the quality of the sculpting, noting “Conte collectables upped the ante with incredible detail.” John has also seen the customer base change, observing that adults are his primary customers although he frequently gets children in the shop and enjoys “educating them to the wonderful world of toy soldiers.”

Although plastics prices have risen substantially he notes that there are inexpensive figures out there including the BMC Civil War figures (sold as Americana in the Gettysburg area) “if a vacuum gets a couple of these its no big deal” It is the BMC/Americana “Gettysburg” play set that is the steady seller in John’s shop.  “Its nice to see a parent leaving with a child who’s gotten some toy soldiers who looks up and says ‘thanks’ to the parent…that’s a good thing, a nice thing…that’s what starts their interest.”

He believes that “the future of the hobby looks good” and encourages parents to get their kids interested, noting that there’s “a lifetime of enjoyment if you get the bug early.” 

Meaghan Barry, manager of the bookstore at Antietam National Battlefield enthusiastically affirms that “Toy soldiers are a consistent seller and generally more than one bag is sold at a time” and notes that the most frequently heard refrain from children  in her store is “I want this one, and this one!”

Meaghan’s shop, located on the battlefield itself, serves the full range of visitors.  She says of the Americana line of toy soldiers “Children, parents, and grandparents purchase them”

Of those children, one in particular, is emblematic of the new generation of toy soldier enthusiasts: Michael Logan Thomas.

Eleven-year-old Michael Logan recently became fascinated with those little plastic men and, when asked what he finds most interesting about them, observes “The fact that you can set them up so they’re battling and then set them up differently;  they can be different every time.”  This articulate bedroom-floor general currently collects soldiers of just the Civil War period though adds “I want soldiers from other periods but it’s a work in progress.”

Michael Logan is looking forward to middle school and the opportunity to use toy soldiers in history assignments; “I could use them to show what the Battle of Bull Run was like; set them up to demonstrate it.”

This child of the sesquicentennial era has a personalized approach to his soldiers and battles noting “Usually I just like making different set-ups but I’ll do battles when I get the chance” adding “When one side is outnumbered they get more cannons.”  Asked who usually wins as he presides over blue and gray armies he responds, “Typically, I never get to the end, but usually the Union wins and some times the Confederates.”

Michael Logan’s taste in toys is reflective of other kids his age noting his interest in Legos. Megablocks, Pokeman, and Transformers, but he gives nearly equal attention to his Civil War soldiers.  When asked what he would tell other kids about toy soldiers he thoughtfully responds, “You might think that they’re not fun, but they are quite fun.”

Thus far the emphasis has been on men and boys as the primary interest group for toy soldiers, but to exclude girls would, in fact, be quite hasty.

Meet 31-year-old Christin Sciulli, a self-described “true geek girl, who has always been drawn to gaming and collecting toy soldiers."

Christin, a native of Pittsburgh, traces her interest back to middle school when her father became involved in the hobby of 15mm miniature war gaming with a focus on the American Civil War.  Christin thought “the figures were really cool, and I offered to paint the horses for my dad, which then led to my siblings and I painting entire units for him.”

A history enthusiast since childhood, Christin particularly enjoyed watching westerns with her grandparents and reading about westward expansion.  This led her to the Civil War era which, even as a young girl, she found “very interesting and tragic.” Initially, she was drawn into the hobby by Civil War and Wild West figures, and, like her father, miniature war gaming became her primary interest.  Her interest has grown beyond the Civil War to include painting and gaming with miniatures from a variety of eras, noting “I realize that I just don't have the physical space to buy figures and game in every period that interests me.”

When asked how she is viewed in this traditionally male domain she responds “Very positively . . . until I start rolling the dice and killing their troops! Generally everyone I have interacted with has been very polite and encouraging, and happy to have a woman gaming with them and discussing history and the hobby with them; they are happy to have any new blood participating in the hobby with them.”

Since the 1960s the hobby has changed, seeing the range of Civil War toy soldiers increase in quality, availability and in price.  What is unchanged however is the joy found in setting up and knocking down these little plastic men in miniature battlefield dramas just as they have been for generations.

In Christin and Michael Logan one can see the torch being passed from the Centennial generation to that of the Sesquicentennial era.  Despite the distractions of electronic gaming, and technology-based toys, young people and children are still happy to marshal their plastic and metal legions, both blue and gray, and soldier on into the future.

Toy soldiers, happily, will endure.

Soldier on!