Identifying Vintage Lead Toy Soldiers

In this edition of my series looking at common collectibles we’re going to take a look at Vintage Lead Toy Soldiers and a few basics of identifying them. Collecting vintage toy soldiers made primarily between 1930 and 1950 is an increasingly popular hobby. You can often find vintage lead toy soldiers at estate sales and auctions, storage garage auctions and even everyday yard sales. You can also find them online at eBay and elsewhere. Of course, the problem is identifying the exact vintage lead toy soldier you have found and how valuable it might be.

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When we begin looking at Vintage Lead Toy Soldiers we want to first look at the country of origin. Primarily these toys were made in the US and the UK since this was before Asian manufacturers captured a huge portion of the toy market. 

In the US, most of these toy soldiers were made for Five and Dime stores, like Woolworth, or, in some cases, mail order catalogs like Sears and Montgomery Ward. US made lead soldiers from this time period were designed to be durable for hours of play by children. It seems odd today that someone would give an object made from toxic lead alloys to a child for them to play with but back then people didn’t know or didn’t care. Typically US made vintage toy soldiers will have thick gun barrels and minimal detail so that they would withstand rough play. The top US manufacturers of lead toy soldiers during this golden age were Barclay, Grey Iron and Manoil.

In the UK, the primary manufacturer of Lead Toy Soldiers was W. Britains Limited. Britains pioneered a technique for making toy soldiers call the hollowcast technique. This allowed them to make their products at a high quality level while maintaining lower manufacturing costs. Britains is still in business today, serving primarily the toy soldier collectors market. Vintage Britains toy soldiers are noted for their high level of detail as compared to their US made counterparts. Vintage pieces are also more fragile and will often have breaks, bends and other damage from age and wear. Also, since the production runs were smaller and hand finishing was common this introduced a number of variations that impact the value of these vintage toy soldiers.

When Identifying Vintage Lead Toy Soldiers you want to start by paying attention to how the details match the country of origin, the manufacturer and the time period. These basics will help you separate the vintage toy soldiers from modern replicas. After that, you can further narrow it down by looking into the specific production runs by the manufacturers of vintage toy soldiers.


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Comment by Vampire Bats
2008-06-20 20:35:38

i know someone who collects these, i will have to show him this page !

Comment by Cheap Anime Games
2008-07-08 12:13:52

It kills me to think how much my big brother’s collection of vintage lead toy soldiers would be worth now … if of course he hadn’t swapped them for a skateboard at a garage sale in the 1970s.

My big brother always was a bit of a doofus.

Comment by jfc
2008-07-13 09:13:31

Hi Anime,

I used to have a collection of toy soldiers myself but I sold it on eBay a few years ago. I did get more than the price of a skateboard for them though. ;)

Comment by Susan Milow
2008-07-13 01:58:18

My father-in-law recently passed away and in his estate, was a box with over 100 Manoil and/or other toy soldiers. There is paint missing from many as they were well played with although all the guns appear to be intact. I believe these to be from the 1930’s as my FIL was born in 1931. The question I have is that they are all quite dirty. Would it behoove me to wash them before attempting to sell them or could this hurt the value?

Comment by jfc
2008-07-13 09:09:58

Hi Susan,

100 Manoil toy soldiers is quite a haul. Manoil soldiers were quite durable and most have held up well over the years. Depending on the condition and the exact model they’ll be $10 to $20 apiece on average. They probably will be from the 1930’s since Manoil suspended production during WWII and had very limited production thereafter. Here’s an article about them, Manoil Toy Soldiers.

As for cleaning them, I suggest moving cautiously. If you have a buyer lined up for the whole lot they may want to clean the soldiers themselves. If you’re wanting to sell them on eBay or elsewhere yourself then you will want to clean them up a bit. Begin by dusting them off with a very fine paint brush. You want to remove as much surface dust as possible but do this very gentle so as to avoid damage to the toy soldier or releasing any lead dust. Next, you can wash them in a very mild detergent like Ivory, once again being very gentle with them. Dry them with a gentle cloth and that should take care of it.

If you want any advice on selling these toy soldiers on eBay feel free to ask. I sold over 100 toy soldiers on eBay myself a few years ago.

Comment by Claire
2009-01-20 07:39:19

I have found a lot of old soldiers in the loft a couple of weeks ago. Some are Britains and Timpo but there are other soldiers that have no name of the base and have been hand painted. I thought they have be Airfix but not sure. I also have some Britains scottish drummers and a couple have chips, they are not plastic or lead, they look like they are made from clay/ pottery. Does anybody know if soldiers are made from clay as I thought they would all be plastic or lead. I am not sure of the age but they must have been in the loft for over 30 years.

Comment by jfc
2009-01-20 08:30:36

Hi Claire,

As far as I know Britains were made using a mixture of lead, tin and antimony using the hollow-cast method up until WWII. In the 50’s they added some plastic resin models as a cost cutting measure and quit using lead entirely in 1966 due to health concerns. Lead-free pewter was used after that. I don’t know of any that were made from clay unless you’ve happened to run across a design prototype. Often the original sculpture was done in clay.

My suggestion would be to locate a local antique toy expert and have them evaluate the toy soldiers you found. This is the best thing to do when you’re uncertain about a particular item. If you don’t know of one, usually if you can find someone who knows antiques well in one area or in general who can lead you to an expert in a particular area.

Comment by Claire
2009-01-20 15:48:57

Thanks jfc, I am sure there is a toy expert nearby so will ask them. Thanks for you help.

(Comments wont nest below this level)
Comment by alan landon
2009-02-04 07:48:12

a friend (without a computor)has some “toy”soldiers that have
the name that looks like j.debone.he has failed to find
anything about them, can you help? thanks alan.

Comment by jfc
2009-02-04 09:01:36

Hi Alan,

Sorry, I couldn’t find any information on a company by that name that might have manufactured toys or imported and branded them with that name. If they’re old and obscure there might not be that much information available online for them though. I’ll see if I can check in some reference books I have to see if there’s anything in there.

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