“You know,” says the woman with the red hat, “setting up these soldiers is very good for the eye and finger control of the child. You know, putting them in rows and not knocking them all over.”
Only an artist-jeweler (such as Tiffany) could possibly set up what she’s referring to: 1,400 pieces representing French infantry, cavalry, and artillery of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, all under an inch high and arranged row upon row in a small box painted to look like a parade grounds.
You can’t call human history a complete waste, says Dostoyevsky, when you take into account the spectacular military dress uniforms worn by armies down through the ages. Most of them seem to be represented here, in dazzling panoramas ranging from the coronation of Menelik II, to Kaiser Wilhelm reviewing his troops.
Mass production of toy soldiers began with “flats” produced in Nuremberg, Germany, using excess metal left over from kitchenware manufacturing. Only 1 mm thick, the specimens here are nevertheless microscopically detailed and painted. For example, in a tableaux of fantastically costumed and feathered Aztecs battling Conquistadors in shining helmets and ornate breastplates on the steps of a giant pyramid.
These “flats” evolved into “semi-flats” (10mm thick) and then into full rounds (3-D). The master of these was George Heyde, of Dresden (creator of the lavish “Wilhelm” and “Menelik” scenes above) whose firm flourished from the end of the Franco-Prussian war until the firebombing and utter destruction of Dresden during WWII.
In 1893, “a man called Britain” invented the economical hollow lead figures that have become the most widely collected toy soldiers. Britains have recreated “nearly every regiment of the British Army and hundreds from other nations.” Of course, any Britains that were made, Forbes has — right down to the rare “Village Idiot” from the 1920’s “Home Farm” set. This was speedily introduced when King George V made an off-hand remark on his absence (“No English village is complete without him”) and withdrawn shortly thereafter “on grounds of taste”.
Thanks to revolving turntables, there’s parades and mounted Indians circling cowboys. Also, a spectacular staging, “in the authentic heraldry of the Middle Ages”, of the Battle of Portiers in 1356, with England’s Black Prince making butter out of the cream of French chivalry. Each knight’s name is printed on his stand.
Between the soldiers and the ships is an india-ink and watercolor painting, “The Destruction of Admiral Cervera’s Fleet, July 3rd, 1898 (Xanthas Smith, 1898), which is done in the innocent spirit of children’s drawing on similar themes.
In it, 3 American dreadnoughts, all guns blazing at once, are literally blowing the Spanish fleet to smithereens. U.S. sailors lounge on the decks, arms folded or hands in pockets, watching the fireworks with detached realism. The Spanish are not even firing back: “Last one overboard is a rotten egg,” seems their motto; some even seem to be running on top of the water to get away from the exploding smokestacks. Other have crowded aboard a capsized, floating gun turret, like Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. There are no visible injuries, except to their feelings.
Cries of “man battle stations!” and the theme from Das Boat emanate from the next room. Inside is a big tank, at the bottom of which lies a model of the Lusitania, for which Forbes paid $28,600. Dozens of toy subs swarm above it.
Any doubts about the value of collecting toy ships (and toy soldiers, etc.) are erased by seeing the collection itself, with fleets of warships, passenger liners, merchant marines, and riverboats loving arranged, labeled and explained. Most date from 1905 to 1930, and are made of tin, which allowed for attractive and sturdy detailing. It’s fun to kneel down, to get on eye level with them, and imagine what you could have imagined, had you had these toys.
The Marklin Company’s Weissenberg, a beautiful battleship at least 3′ long, has unhookable lifeboats, a sturdy railing, places for toy soldiers to stand, an anchor with chain attached, fixed cannons protected by curved tin shields, and two rotating turrets that look like upside-down saucepans. A wind-up key sticks out of a smokestack.
“The Weissenberg captures all that made this company great,” says the label. “Note how well designed the ship is for its size, somehow appearing almost bigger than it is. This results from many exaggerated features—overstuffed gun turrets, thick masts, and large painted portholes. . . . Even the warship grey coloring sparkles with playful seriousness.”
Nearby is the “Andre”, the largest boat in the collection. Its deck has been removed to expose its “complex and very powerful gas engine.” It looks like you’d have to get your Dad to help push it out to the center of the driveway; then you’d stand back about 100′, hands over your ears, while he started it up.
“What exactly is a toy boat?” asks a signboard on the glass case housing a flotilla of fifty warships, ranging from 1′ to 3′ long. It explains that unlike a model, which is a delicately crafted replica of a real ship, a toy ship is mass produced with the emphasis on playability, not realism.
“Powered by steam, battery, or clockwork, toy boats had a tough life. They blew up, sank, forgot to come back, or just rusted away, leaving few survivors. They are the rarest of antique toys because they fulfilled their purpose—they were played with.”*
Yard sales and pawn shops are where Forbes gathered the final collection, trophy memorabilia. He writes: “The point made in this gallery is relevant to all collectors: THE MORTALITY OF IMMORTALITY. Every object you see here . . . marked a moment that was of great moment to Gone getters and doers. These varying milestone markers, so meaningful to lives past, were acquired in flea markets, at auction, and other emporiums of the ephemeral. This trophy room is a moving reminder that all things and all of us are all too soon ”over and out”.
Oddball items like the Hindenburg stool, the feet of a Mexican deer made into handles for a carving knife and fork, and a silver platter presented “for the best 5 acres of Swedes grown with Bradbury Manure” acquire special poignancy when viewed in this light.
Nor has the parallel to Forbes the collector been lost on me. My Dad told me a story about a rich guy who spent his whole life at Sotheby’s, filling up his house with a comprehensive collection of stuff from all over the world. As soon as he died, his family called in Sotheby’s, and they auctioned all off again, scattering it to the winds, as it were.
That’s not likely to happen here, since Forbes’ son seems to share his interests. Hopefully he will also subscribes to Malcolm’s collection philosophy: “It’s the sharing of it that keeps it alive.”
[Well, they did keep the collection together for many years after his death, but eventually it went the way of other collections, and that seems proper. Many many people had a chance to see it while it was here.]
*This crucial distinction was brought home to me one Christmas when I received both a giant toy aircraft carrier, “Mighty Matilda”, and also a large-scale model kit of the U.S.S. Constitution.
Mighty Matilda was my all-time favorite toy. Powered by dozens of “D” batteries (Dad finally figured out how to hook it up to a electric transformer instead, to his great relief), with an indestructible yellow plastic flight deck long enough for me to try riding it myself, it had working elevators, catapults, missile launchers, alarms, and a full complement of jets, sailors and frogmen.
It would cruise majestically around the living room, , crushing enemy speedboats which sent out to ram it.
Another exciting scenario had two enemy frogmen climbing up the hull, knocking out the sailor at the main control panel before he could flip the alarm lever. Then they would leap for, and just grab onto the ascending elevator, battling with more sailors there (those who weren’t knocked overboard would end up pinned helplessly between the elevators and the bottom of the flight deck). Finally they would crawl across the deck (being frogmen, they were permanently stuck in prone swimming position) and get into two jets, taking off just as the first sailor recovered to sound the alarm.
A tremendous dogfight was climaxed by a kamikaze dive, which just missed thanks to Sailor #1 throwing the ship into reverse.
The model of U.S.S. Constitution was an shame to me for years. A present from Gramma, who probably thought it would develop my hand and finger coordination, it was, or might have been, a delicately crafted replica, after painting and assembly. The painting went o.k.; I learned how to use masking tape to make a straight line and how applying a thin wash of enamel over the decks, instead of just slopping it on, would bring out the molded imitation wood grain.
But the rigging—what a nightmare! I’m sure Malcolm Forbes has had NO problem entering the Kingdom of Heaven, rich as he was, when compared with what I went through trying to pass that thread through one of those tiny eyehooks. Then the main mast melted because of too much Testor’s.
The one time I played with it, half the cannons broke loose and started rolling around amidships. The only way to retrieve them would be to rip off the upper decks. I would have stomped it to pieces, but Gramma kept asking how the ship was coming (“almost done, Grams!”).
Now I’ll have to censor this part of the article before sending it to her, because while I always meant to finish old Ironsides one day, in truth the disfigured hulk sat in a closet for ten years before being judged unfit even for a yard-sale freebie.