I had some great toys as a kid. Favorites included various sets of blocks, a huge collection of wooden ones, Legos, blocks that looked like Legos but were made by someone else, and all sorts of other variations. As a kid I won some sort of contest for building things out of Tinker Toys, wooden rods that interconnected with special hubs. Near the end of my childhood run there was an all-metal Erector Set assembled with nuts and bolts, Lincoln Logs, and some sort of electrical set.
Alongside these were toy soldiers. Every kid has them, often in the hundreds. They came in clear plastic bags from the grocery store for 59 cents up to massive “playsets” that included vehicles and clearly were of the major Christmas present or birthday gift from grandpa variety.
Whenever some new patch of dirt was discovered in the neighborhood all the boys would haul out their toy soldiers and hours would be spent digging holes and making forts for them. Actual “war” rarely happened, as the extensive preparations and setting up hundreds of soldiers always seemed to take until peace was declared because it was lunch or dinner time.
There was always one bridge ahead too far. The comic book toy soldier sets.
These sets have acquired an almost mythical quality among men of a certain age. In the 1960s nearly every boy wanted them due to the never ending advertising in comic books. Every comic included at least one full page color ad for these things. There were army, navy, and air force sets. Cowboy and Indian sets. Knights, Civil War, and Revolutionary War sets, the exact same sets advertised as “games,” and every possible variation.
Each set contained “good guys” and “bad guys,” even if they were just the same figures molded in green or grey. Some also included sections of a fort or wall.
The key was that the cartoon-like ads depicted the toy soldiers in epic battles, with them standing like mushrooms to the painted horizon. The ads were often drawn in exaggerated perspective, so the soldier in the foreground was 20 times the size of those in the distance. He usually was shouting. Holding the ad in your hand pre-puberty, you could feel the earth vibrate beneath you.
I later learned the best of the ads were drawn by a renowned comic book artist, Russ Heath, of DC Comics. He certainly created the two most well known, the 100 Piece Toy Soldier Set ad, and the 132 Piece Roman Soldiers Set ad, for which he was paid $50 each. It is unclear if all the others were drawn by Heath, or by others who just mimicked his style.
The reason the figures in the ads had no relation to the flat two-dimensional atrocities that came in the mail is because Heath never saw the actual product, and created the ads out of his imagination. He claims man-children of many ages would stop him at comic conventions in his later years to complain about how they still felt cheated. Nonetheless, the bright colors and flash and bangs in the illustrations matched exactly the images we had in our heads when we set up our own pathetic armies in the dirt patch in front of the O’Conner house.
(Aside: that dirt patch was a gift to us from a benevolent god. Sometime in the mystic past a sewer repair had been done, requiring a decent-sized hole. Years later, despite the efforts of Mr. O’Conner, grass simply would not grow there. It was like a bald spot on his tree lawn and the site of most of our battles. I wish to believe it is still there, defying the laws of biology to not allow anything to grow. An archaeological excavation would likely produce hundreds of buried toy soldiers left outside during a hard rain only t be swallowed by the earth.)
Back to those toy soldier sets from the comic books. They were not expensive, ranging from maybe 99 cents to $1.59. The problem was we kids, even if we had the allowance money saved up, could not order them on our own. We could carefully clip out the tiny coupon, squeeze our primary school block printing into the spaces for our address, maybe even find an envelope in the kitchen drawer and address it. The problem was the financial media: the coupon clearly said “No Cash, check or money order only.”
That meant convincing an adult to write you a check in return for your handful of coins. This was very difficult somehow to accomplish. Pleas of “But mom, it’s my own money!” were met with stone cold refusals to send a check to some unknown address. Mail order in general in those days was considered a sleazy business, best left to “martial aids” and “health magazines” advertised in places other than comic books.
For the rare kid who overcame all obstacles (usually with the help of a sympathetic uncle) it always seemed to end in disappointment. There are even online/Facebook groups today devoted to this, a kind of group therapy several decades removed. For all of what must have been tens of thousands of orders placed, few were ever delivered. Mom was right; the checks for $1.59 were cashed in what was clearly one of the least efficient scams in history and the soldiers were usually never delivered.
I finally got my mom to write a check for me one time when I was home from school sick. My whining took on some sort of special urgency I guess, and she broke down. I was to receive the Modern Army set.
I checked the mailbox daily for months. One day a small box, ironically about the size of the boxes paper checks used to come in from the bank, arrived, tired and battered. Inside was a handful of loose cowboys, each about an inch high. They were bright yellow, not a cowboy color, and flat. Unlike even the cheapest toy soldiers from the drug store, which were round and sort of 3D, they were flat as playing cards to I guess allow more of them to be crammed into a box. They barely would stand even on a stable, flat, table top, and certainly were of no use on the O’Conner battlefield.
This was the actual moment of the end of my Childhood Innocence.
Where did all this joy and angst come from? At first glance it looked like these flat soldiers were the work of Lucky Products Inc., which had its headquarters on Long Island. The sets themselves were made in Hong Kong.
The problem is that the ads as I find them online now all list different addresses — Long Island, upstate and various other places in New York, and even Atlanta. The ads ran over a 20 year span. Was it all the work of one company?
Maybe not. The fuller story begins with Milton Levine, who, just out of the military after WWII, decided his future lay in plastics. Levine formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, E. Joseph “Joe” Cossman and the pair formed a mail-order toy company. They connected with NOSCO Plastic of Erie, Pennsylvania, a supplier of plastic toys to Cracker Jack, and that’s where the first flats soldiers were made before the process migrated to Hong Kong.
It would take a year before the first flats were ready to ship, even though Levine was running ads in comic books the whole time. He hired a staff of women to open the huge amounts of mail and process the checks that arrived each day, al of which finally explain the delays which plagued many a childhood.
Soon ads from other companies began appearing. Mastercraft, a Boston company, sold “100 Toy Soldiers for $1.00,” but did not include the important pasteboard “footlocker.” Levine and his brother-in-law it turns out themselves set up a number of separate companies (all with East Coast P.O. Boxes) as well as selling the flats wholesale to other, competing, mail-order companies. So everything sort of did come from one place all those years.
Today even the original ads themselves are considered collectibles and sell on eBay. Never mind the ads, depending on condition, you can pick up an actual set of flat toy soldiers for $30-$50, which of course originally cost $1.59. Actually the highest recorded original price was for the 132 Roman Soldiers set at $2.98, plus postage and handling of course.
But looking through the ads for sets for sale today I left smiling. Given all that are for sale today, that means a lot more got delivered than I ever believed as a kid. My friends and I may never have seen our soldiers arrive in the mail, but apparently lots of others did. Those kids treasured their flats, and kept them through many spring cleanings, moves to college dorms, and the like. They are moments never to be seen again frozen in cheap plastic.
I thought about buying one. Whereas once upon a time $1.59 represented real money, today I can afford $50 if I want to spend it. But it would not be right. The set I’d buy would be heavy with someone else’s memories. It would be sent to me by FedEx,with minute-by-minute tracking. There would be no waiting by the mailbox every afternoon for months. It wouldn’t be right, would not be true to the myth. Some things are better left alone.