Paper toy soldier

The illustrations accompanying this article are taken from sheets of paper toy soldiers produced in Italy I the first half of the 20th century

Giulio C. Cuccolini

Someone once coined the expression "poor papers" to indicate those printed products which, following the progress of typographic arts, became popularly wide spread during a time span of century, from about 1850 to 1950.

Usually these are single sheets or booklets containing few sheets, often in color, illustrating different themes to satisfy requirements of a vast and heterogeneous public.

Examples of poor papers are holy images, baseball cards or similar collection cards, book markers, paper nativity sets, soldier sheets, illustration sheets, sheets used as building "blocks", paper clothes for dolls, table games such as Snakes 'n Ladders, Christmas cards, barber shop calendars, matchboxes, etc. This material, at the time commonplace and economical but today rare and rather expensive, has an undeniable attraction and can serve to better understand the tastes and the mentality of an epoch. We will here quickly illustrate the world of paper soldiers.

WE HAVE NEWS OF A TOY SOLDIER FOUND IN AN ARCHEOLOGICAL SITE DATING BACK TO ROMAN TIMES. Toy soldiers are also found in subsequent epochs, but these are unique samples built by artisans, to be used in play by youngsters at court or those belonging to noble families. Their production in series, through lead fusion, begins in Europe in the 18th century. At the end of the 19th, new materials are introduced such as tin and paste (whether this be made of wood, clay, a mixture of flour and water...). These substances lowered the cost of the toys, but still did not serve to make them affordable to youngsters of poorer classes. In the 18th century, the first printed paper sheets appeared, containing several formations of soldiers to be glued onto a carton sheet, cut out and then fixed on a folding base or on a small wooden pedestal. In this way, at modest cost, children could muster up small armies to vent off their thirst for adventure. Infantrymen, cavalrymen, artillery men, cannons, baggage wagons, and even full battle scenes were printed. With the evolution of military techniques came illustrations of new war devices such as battleships, airplanes, tanks, mortars, machine guns, and motorized ambulances.


Between 1830 and 1840 some German companies used lithography together with wood engraving, and then later color lithography which allowed to produce sheets of soldiers with different brightly colored uniforms. At the end of the 19th century, the lithographic stone was replaced with an engraved aluminum sheet. The largest production centers were Èpinal in France and Neuruppin in Germany which turned out millions of sheets each year containing soldiers belonging to the armies of the entire world. But the production of paper toy soldiers became more widespread during the second half of the 19th century even in England, Spain, Portugal and Italy.

TO UNDERSTAND THE SUCCESS THAT PAPER TOY SOLDIERS HAVE enjoyed with children the world over we must remember that they were economically accessible, aesthetically fascinating, playfully involving. It must be added that pedagogy of the time considered them an ideal instrument to entertain children and transmit through playful evasion a series of values retained educational and formative: a sense of hierarchy, patriotic sentiment, heroic spirit, nationalist pride. These values find in the martial figure of the soldier an almost perfect synthesis.

THE DRAMATIC BLOOD BATH OF WORLD WAR II MARKED THE END OF THIS MILITARIST VOCATION and decreed the advent of new values inspired by democracy, pacifism, understanding among nations. Companies producing paper toy soldiers closed their doors or partially re-converted their production proposing, on the wings of the success of western cinematography, sheets containing Indians, cowboys and cavalrymen. But this solution was short-lived, because with the opening of new adventurous scenarios, such as the world of outer space, and the advent of the economical plastic soldiers, paper ones passed definitively from the hands of children into those of collectors.

Login or Register to publish a comment