With Christmas fast approaching, I wanted to take a look at the history of plastic toys. Plastic can be seen all over the place at Christmastime in toys, decorations and even Christmas trees. In this blog, I wanted to focus on Fun and Historical Plastic facts by discovering what the very first plastic toy was. The answer: Toy Soldiers!
Toy soldiers have basically been around forever. They have been dated as far back as the time of Pharaohs. Originally, they were handmade out of wood, stone, clay or different types of metal. For the most part children in these times, except for the wealthiest, spent their time working not playing with toys, so let’s fast forward a few hundred years or so to the 18th century. This was when toy soldiers were first easily mass produced using a method called hollow casting. This method involves filling a mold with lead letting the lead dry just until the outer layer is harden and then pouring out the still liquid center. This way less material is used for each toy making them cheaper to produce. At first toy soldiers were really only popular with wealthy families or collectors. Toy soldiers at this time were generally made out of lead and elaborately painted.
In the early to mid-twentieth century, soldiers began to be made out of a material called composite which is a mixture of sawdust and glue. This material made them a little cheaper. The first plastic injection molded toy soldier was created in America in 1938 by Bergen Toy & Novelty Co. (Beton). When the United States declared war on Japan in December 1941, all manufacturing facilities began producing items for the World War II instead of toys. From 1942 till the war officially ended in 1945, there were few plastic soldiers on the market. When WWII ended plastic was available for commercial products again. Plastic toy soldiers again became extremely popular. Though collectors still preferred lead toy soldiers, plastic offered a less expensive, kid-friendly version of the toy. While soldiers had been painted, the plastic versions at first were made in solid colors.
As the popularity of the plastic versions grew, they began to adorn them with paint. This made the plastic version appeal to kids and collectors alike. It was mainly the baby boomer generation that made toy soldiers popular. They were widely available from the 1950’s to the mid 1960’s which is when their popularity began to decline. Originally concerned with the lead based versions being unsafe, toy makers began manufacturing mainly plastic toy soldiers. However there were other issues that caused sales to decrease. The anti-war sentiment which started in the 1960’s and carried into the 70’s dramatically decreased the demand for toy soldiers. Instead of playing with military characters, kids (and their parents) wanted science fiction action figures instead, not to mention a brand new toy entering the market at this time: video games. Which are, of course, made out of plastic as well!