Some say it’s hard to keep a good man down. Nothing more true could be said about Army Men: green plastic soldiers fixed to a molded base, which stand defiant in the face of oppression, tyranny, and latent childhood aggression – as they have for over fifty years. Let’s take a look back at these valiant toy servicemen from yesteryear.
The history of Army Men almost predates America, as European countries such as Germany, France, and England produced their own versions out of metal alloys such as tin in the 1800s. Like any good army, these two-to-three-inch soldiers were sold in their own small battalions. Although they generally came brightly painted, many hobbyists preferred to paint them themselves. Toy makers didn’t skimp on style either, expanding beyond the state-of-the-art infantryman all the way back to Roman and Egyptian warriors. With their popularity came the essential accessories such as wagons, artillery, and even themed buildings.
With the emergence of the United States as a viable military power during World War I came the inevitable influx of toy soldiers in the states. “Doughboy” soldiers and Civil War fighters fabricated of iron – and later, regrettably, lead – made their way off the assembly lines. The possibilities were as endless as the history of war itself, and soon cowboys and Indians became a popular variation rolling out beside other miniature conscripts. One of the more telling design features of Army Men began when a New Jersey manufacturer gave the metal figurines “pod feet,” or a flat, oval platform designed to help the soldier remain standing.
When concerns over lead-poisoning in the fifties threatened to disband Army Men for good, their durability and immortality became assured with the arrival of plastic. With this innovation came the iconic World War II themed troopers we know and love as the quintessential Army Men. Because plastic made it possible to produce them cheaply and easily, toy companies often deployed them by the bag or bucket. The properties of plastic also allowed a level of detail not available in earlier metallic versions. With this high level of detail, purchased in bulk, children could not only stage massive campaigns from sofas to sandboxes, but they could send wave after wave of soldier to a gruesome death with the economical toll costing mere pennies. Army Men faced death in the form of Slingshots, BB guns, magnifying glasses, even black cats and bottle rockets. Still, they persevered.
No one toy company held a monopoly on Army Men, and several companies produced them over the years. One company that managed to distinguish itself was Marx Toys, which sold their plastic cherry bomb fodder in play sets that featured accessories such as bunkers, vehicles, and larger-scale weapons. History itself provided ammunition for creativity and versatility: Knights vs. Vikings, the Alamo, Fort Apache, Blue vs. Grey (Civil War), and Battleground (World War II) were some of the popular variations. Other manufacturers put their own little spin on Army Men. Timmee made plastic soldiers from old lead-based molds while MPC modeled their soldiers with hands capable of grabbing any number of interchangeable weapons.
Military advancement itself helped keep Army Men current and popular with additions like the M-16 rifleman in the 1960s. But as companies such as Marx went under in the 1970s, fans and collectors turned from scarce shelves to plentiful magazine ads. Memorable appearances in films such as Toy Story and Small Soldiers (as well as those films’ inevitable video game franchises) have helped Army Men do what they do best…survive by dying….but an honorable death it is and will always be.
Tell us about your own battalions of plastic warriors. What gruesome war crimes did you commit against them? Perhaps, massive agent-orange-esque attacks via ignited model cement? Did you replenish your troops by ordering them from the back page of your favorite comic book? Share your Army Men memories with all of us in our comments section, as we salute their tireless service over the years.