Saturday, April 24, 2010

Toy Soldiers Galore

From Friday's New York Times Antiques Column. The first story is about French antique furniture. But of course I found this second item in the column more interesting:

Parents a century ago could persuade themselves that the newest toys were educational, since the boxes showed historically accurate battlefield scenes dating back to medieval sieges on moated citadels. The boxes held stacks of cutout paper and cardboard soldiers, wearing uniforms from dozens of countries and wielding rifles, sabers or cannon barrels.
The toys did not hold up well; the soldiers’ necks and weapons were especially likely to snap. But the fragility did not discourage Edward Ryan, the field’s best-known collector, who owned legions of two-dimensional regiments and wrote a comprehensive 1995 guide, “Paper Soldiers: The Illustrated History of Printed Paper Armies of the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.”
On Saturday, Philip Weiss Auctions in Oceanside, N.Y., will start selling the collection of Mr. Ryan, a retired C.I.A. officer who died in August 2009 at the age of 90. (More phases of the Ryan sale will be held later this year.) Philip Weiss, the auctioneer, knew the collector and had toured his Maryland house.
In room after room, “a lot of the soldiers were standing up on shelves,” Mr. Weiss said. “It was all displayed beautifully.”
According to Mr. Ryan’s obituary in The Washington Post he started acquiring toy soldiers in the 1920s, “an interest fueled by reading pulp adventure stories about World War I.” He built up the collection while traveling on C.I.A. assignments and branched into metal, wood and composition toys. He fabricated his own paper sets as well, by hand-coloring small vintage illustrations of soldiers’ uniforms and posting the cutouts on wooden blocks.
The lots in Saturday’s auction were mostly manufactured between the 1890s and 1940s, by American companies including Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers. The sets of soldiers, less than a foot tall, have gung-ho names on the box covers like “Merry War,” “Forward March!” and “Spear-Em.” The uniforms are meticulous representations of history’s best-known underdogs and doomed armies, including American Revolution troops and Napoleon’s invaders. But Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers also patriotically printed images of the active forces of their own time, from Rough Riders and doughboys through World War II paratroopers.
Mr. Ryan’s holdings even document nearly forgotten moments in the annals of military alliances and conflicts. He owned an early 1900s set from Milton Bradley showing Russian and Japanese forces during the 1904-5 struggle over Port Arthur: the bearded Russians wear gold-and-green jackets, while the Japanese infantrymen are dressed in impractical white. On Mr. Ryan’s 1940s set, optimistically named “United for Liberty/Allied Soldiers/Together They Fight,” a box label explains that it “contains United States Marines, English Guards and Russian Cossacks.” That trio, the label predicts, is “sure to bring joy into the play of every child.”
The labels suggest some proper regiment arrangements. “The soldiers should be about two inches apart, six in a row, with the captain in the lead” was Milton Bradley’s advice for its “100 Soldiers on Parade with Band” set. Toy pistols, rifles and cannons that shoot balls or dowels were sometimes included, so the bad guys could be knocked down. A 1940s set promises a “coastal artillery gun” with “patented mystic shooting mechanism,” while assuring adults that the result would be “loads of harmless fun.”
There are few illustrations of women in the sets — mostly nurses to stand around miniature tents. The auction’s only other women are in scenes from Cinderella incongruously printed on the backs of some British infantrymen.
Mr. Weiss, the auctioneer, has placed estimates of a few hundred dollars on most of the lots. His Web site,, gives mini-slideshows for each soldier set, revealing occasional condition problems: Popsicle sticks and cardboard patches reinforce the backs of some cutouts. Bidders, unfazed by the damage, sometimes concentrate on soldiers from one region, era or manufacturer. But overall the collecting pool is narrow. When the Ryan collection ends up dispersed to new owners, Mr. Weiss said, “I think everybody’s going to know each other.”


  1. Linda.......Wow

    What a history, what a collection! It's fantastic, it's, wow, wow! Have you, or rather are you bidding on any of it? I can't imagine letting any of that get by you. Wish I had some money. Have a great weekend.


  2. The bids are starting rather low, and it's tempting...but I think I'll pass. Now if these soldiers had a change of costume, and a few WACs and WAVEs were included, I might reconsider!

  3. What an amazing and wonderful story. I assumed the prices would be much higher. It is so tempting to bid on something like this, but I won't do it (she says with resolve.)