Military toys have been around for hundreds of years if not thousands in some form or another. It took the Industrial Revolution for them to take a more detailed and refined form, with the upper class making use of them for their own dioramas and battlefield recreations in the 1800s. Children were no exception to the rule, getting their own versions to play with as well. One thing that they have never been is greenhouse accessories, left to rust, forgotten until stepped upon.
The Victorian era saw the military toy rise to a whole new level, becoming a form of art in of itself. Figures got more detailed, paint was applied with accuracy in that ranks and classes were easily figured out by the clothing and adornments that were appropriate to that particular figure’s title. The figures also were more dynamic in that they were riding horses to a charge, with the horses captured in a gallop, infantrymen were aiming their rifles or holding out a sword. All of these figurines were made with lead, which meant that they were soft and easily dented or bent, causing them to be thrown out. The discovery of lead being poisonous also meant that the figures became obsolete, with plastic eventually taking lead’s place.
There are certain criteria that those who collect military figures from the late 19th/20th Century follow, including condition, rarity and manufacturer. Many times, the figures were created en masse by factories that weren’t going to be bothered with stamping their name on commonly produced items. As a result, idenftifying the origin of a figure is that much more difficult, relying on individuals who spend their time researching through libraries for catalogs and patents to find these manufacturers. It takes a lot of study to be able to look at a military figure from a certain era and be able to definitively say where it came from.
There are companies that did stamp their name to their work, making the act of verifying the date of manufacturer easy. These figures are highly collectible on their own, as the figures are works of art in their own right.
Condition is another important aspect of collecting, as these were toys that children played with. It makes finding mint condition items that much more difficult, but not impossible. Collectors tend to make do with having a variety of figures in different conditions just to have the piece while seeking out ones in excellent condition.
All of this leads up to the modern era, where collecting military toys and setting up dioramas is as popular as ever. It goes way beyond G.I. Joe, too. Toy makers such as Forces of Valor and 21st Century Toys make scale models that maintain their accuracy of detail, no matter how small the model gets.
Finding these toys is easy as well, with Ultimate Soldier providing an aggregate site for links to many manufacturers. Getting into the hobby or continuing on is as easy as can be.