I’m no military expert, but from what I can tell, it looks like those little green army men are still rocking equipment that dates back to World War II. I mean, I’m sure you can get modern army men — after all, you can get army men doing yoga poses and fat army soldiers — but every time I hit up the toy aisle at Walgreens, I see the same little green army dudes inside those plastic packages, stuck forever in what seems to be a simpler time.
After looking into this, though, I found that little green army men weren’t always from World War II. In fact, they actually predate the war. “They were introduced around 1938 by the Bergen Toy and Novelty Company and they spun off from earlier toy soldiers that have been around for centuries,” explains Michelle Parnett-Dwyer, the curator of the Strong Museum of Play, which is the home of the National Toy Hall of Fame. Prior to 1938, toy soldiers were made from metal and lead, and — in addition to them being toys — they were used by adult model makers and even military personnel for plotting battles. But when more and more stuff began to be made out of plastic, these new army men proved to be way safer than their metal-stabbing, lead-poisoning predecessors.
With the birth of plastic army men, so too came a new means of play. To quote the National Toy Hall of Fame’s website, “Because little green army men cost a pittance to make, they encouraged a kind of play that differed from the play of metal toy soldiers. Kids lose their green figures in do-or-die battles with toy dinosaurs, space men and model railroads. Or they stage battles with lifelike explosives using the caps from their cap pistols or purloined firecrackers from holiday celebrations.”
There is definitely a certain disposability to army men that doesn’t quite exist with most other toys. For myself, when I was growing up playing with my Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, I played as delicately as possible with them and would cry inconsolably if they ever broke. But when it came to the green army men, I might as well have been Sid from Toy Story, as I blew those fuckers up, chucked them off buildings and lit them on fire with abandon.
Those very first soldiers from 1938 were based off World War I troops and were fairly accurate models. Over time, however, they’ve become less and less accurate, mixing time periods with little regard for history. As the Wikipedia page for them explains, “They are equipped with a variety of weapons, typically from World War II to the current era, often depicting the 1964 Vietnam-era M16 rifle with fixed M7 bayonet. … Army men are considered toys and not models; due to this fact, historical and chronological accuracy are generally not a priority.” So they actually aren’t just from World War II, yet somehow they still seem to be from that time. “The little green army men sold in buckets are usually used like WWII GIs, although they more resemble Vietnam War era soldiers,” explains Kent Sprecher, the owner of Toy Soldier HQ and an expert on the history of toy soldiers.
Why then — even if they aren’t completely accurate to WWII — do toy soldiers appear to be suspended in that time period? It seems it has to do with the nature of that war. As Parnett-Dwyer explains, “I hate to say it, but we sort of romanticize that era.” World War II was the last time that the country as a whole was pretty much unconflicted about war, so we view it quite differently than our subsequent conflicts. Basically, playing with toy soldiers shouldn’t carry all the political baggage that came with Vietnam or the Iraq War: It’s simple play from a simpler time, and our collective consciousness seems to place it in WWII because that war, in particular, offers a bit of nostalgia and a bit of safe distance from reality — even from some of the real-life horrors of that war. As Sprecher puts it, “In WWII, the good guys were pretty good and the bad guys were truly evil, so you don’t have to worry about being politically correct.”
It was right after WWII that these toys skyrocketed in popularity, too. Sprecher explains, “The advances in plastic and injection molding machines shortly after WWII meant that millions of plastic soldiers could be made and would be cheap enough that most children could afford them. Also, patriotism was at an all-time high and men and women who served in WWII were our heroes, so WWII toy soldiers became very popular in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Things would change in the era of Vietnam. With the public’s growing distaste for the war, combat toys suffered and little green army men fell out of favor — although they never went away, they certainly declined. It’s kind of weird, then, that this period would generate some of the most recognizable little green army men, most notably the ones holding M16s, which weren’t around back in World War II. “The Tim Mee soldiers bearing M16 rifles are the toy soldiers most folks think of when you mention plastic army men,” explains Jeff Imel, President of Victory Buy Inc., parent company of Tim Mee toys.
Sprecher explains that in the 1980s, the army men toys went through a revival, in large part because men who grew up with them wanted to collect the toys from their youth. Additionally, some of those old WWII molds still existed, so the interest eventually sparked a whole new market where WWII soldiers were being sold again, along with the ones that were produced at the end of the last run — the ones with the M16s. Since then, army men toys have been sold with little regard for accuracy by all kinds of toy manufacturers, including many overseas and many who have copied molds from one another.
This actually leads into another reason why those army men never seem to be modernized: cost. “Updating molds can cost thousands of dollars,” explains Phoebe Chang of Joyin Toys. “There does exist a market for hyper-realistic models and figures, but when it comes to the mass market, there hasn’t been much demand for change.” And so long as people are happy to blow up toys from yesteryear, the toys will likely remain the same.
While I’m sure that this relates to the nostalgia for WWII, I also feel there’s a certain iconic status to those toys by themselves. After all, they were immortalized in the Toy Story films (led by the late R. Lee Ermey, no less), and they’re in the Toy Hall of Fame with those outdated weapons and uniforms. Their look is so iconic that Tim Mee are actually creating an upcoming set of female soldiers that blends right in with the toys that already exist.
While some might complain that it’s historically inaccurate to place women in those wars, Imel explains that while he mulled over the idea of modern female soldiers, he decided to go with something iconic over something accurate. “I chose to model the Plastic Army Women as an extension of the Plastic Army Men universe of pop culture.” This way, he says, the female soldiers can be placed along with the soldiers you can get anywhere and — while it’s certainly way overdue — soon little girls can blow their toys up just like boys have been doing for nearly a century. Which is kind of beautiful, when you think about it.