March 09, 2014

Toys in the Attic: Comic Book Toy Soldiers - Defending Truth, Justice, And The Plastic Way Of Life

OK, wow, this almost seems too good to be true. For just under $2, you get an entire army at your disposal. All petty fights will soon be resolved with your personal militia. Your enemies will cower... One look at those ads was all it took for thousands upon thousands of kids across the USA to gladly part with their hard-earned paper route money, their snow shoveling money, their meager allowances, (or their brother's stolen piggy bank loot), etc. - all in a wildly exciting effort to get those gorgeously presented Toy Soldier Sets! So many pieces! So darn cheap! So positively COOL looking in those great Battle Scenes! And so it went. Kids dutifully clipped out the little outlined square-box order form that always seemed to say "Rush Coupon Today!" Then the kids carefully printed their names and addresses on the tiny forms and mailed them off with their money.

Next was the hardest part of it all - the inevitably extended wait for your order to arrive! For most young warriors, that universally dreaded, agonizingly long, several week waiting period, was simply torture. Most of the Ads never seemed to let on how long an order might actually take either, so one was left at the mercy of that cold, uncaring, EMPTY mail box for what seemed like forever. Oh, the misery of that wait! (It was the rare and lucky soul who finally, mercifully forgot all about their order until the day it arrived.)

Eventually, one great day, after maniacally checking the empty mail box twice a day every day for weeks, the package would FINALLY arrive - usually. Some poor little souls sadly waited for their MIA Soldiers for the rest of their lives - or until an understanding parent intervened with a terse letter to the supplier. But for the lucky majority - the big day had indeed come - and it was time to rip into that package with glee and get down to some serious plastic combat!

At this pivotal moment of bliss, a bleak reality suddenly struck hard and deep into many a young soul. The teeny, brittle, sometimes broken-in-the-box, ever-strange-looking little Soldiers that actually came out of those pitifully wimpy cardboard "Footlockers", "Gun Boxes" and "Treasure Chests" JUST COULD NOT BE WHAT I ORDERED! I mean, just LOOK at 'em! They're...TINY! They're...they're...SKINNY! They're FLAT even! Most of all, they look NOTHING LIKE THE PICTURES IN THE AD! Most expected to see typical "3D" full-sized troops that looked like real "Army Men!" Many felt they'd been HAD for the first time by mail order! Oh, the deep disappointment. The horrible pain of getting burned after all that waiting AND having willingly PAID for the honor! Though far from being "fully satisfied" with their orders, the thought of actually returning these odd little miniature soldiers for a "full refund" (usually a fine-print option stated on the order forms), just did not seem right either. Besides, the refund address was always on the order form itself and that form was mailed away weeks ago!

And it was at this difficult stage that a strange thing often occurred. Rather than simply HATING these weird little mail-order soldiers outright and forever, rather than holding onto the pain and disappointment of that negative first impression, rather than focusing on the faults of these sickly lookin' tiny anti-army men - somehow it seemed a better idea just to give them half a chance to perform where it counted - on the Battlefield. Thus a bond began to form. After all, they WERE paid for already by now-lost but hard earned cash. So why not set 'em all up at least and see what happens...Lo and behold...after a battle or two...they were sort of...dare it be said...FUN!? Somehow all that anger slowly but surely turned into a sort of protective bond with these tiny but ultimately LOYAL Plastic Friends. Despite their bleak arrival, maybe they were good Soldiers after all...brave soldiers in need of a caring General to lead them into epic imaginary Battles - battles that surely also took many young Generals, time and time again, far beyond the pain, loneliness and confines of this cruel ol' world. Maybe these little Comic Book Toy Soldiers aren't so bad after all. Maybe...just maybe...they're even sort'a cool to have around sometimes.


So maybe for years, decades, a lifetime will still remember the hours and hours of great playtime spent with those long lost Plastic Pals...and maybe in your heart of hearts...just maybe you'll even miss 'em a little sometimes.

Comic Book Toy Soldiers A brief History
Milton Levine was just a few years out of the military in the late 1940s. Like many young men returning from WWII the New Yorker was searching for his place in post-war America. He read in Kiplinger’s Letter that there were several ways to make big money—two suggestions were “plastic toys or bobbie pins.”
Levine’s real success would come later when he imagined another idea that would sell into the millions and become a mail-order cult classic. But in 1946, his main goal was to enter the “exciting world of plastics.”

Levine formed a partnership with his brother-in-law, E. Joseph “Joe” Cossman and the pair set out to form a mail-order toy company. E. Joseph Cossman & Company (aka Cossman & Levine Co.) was launched. The pair’s business plan was based on the prospect of a post-war baby boom and a manufacturing upswing in the U.S. Since 1912, Cracker Jack had packed small novelty toys in their boxes and that’s where the partners began their search for a manufacturer to make their toys. NOSCO Plastic of Erie, Pennsylvania, was a supplier of plastic toys to Cracker Jack and that’s where the first “flats” were made

While no one can agree on a time line, 1950 seems to be the year the mail-order business was in full production. Initially the small print ads (usually 2-inches x 2 1/4-inches) were placed in local newspapers throughout the southern New York area and later across the nation. The toy soldiers ads were a phenomenal success.

Allow 6-8 Weeks (maybe more)
Sometimes weeks or months after ordering, the postman delivered a package of flat, styrene-based, hard plastic pieces in a marbled green color mixed with varying shades of black or white. Many of the figures were detailed with rank stripes or branch logos on their shoulders.

Levine credits the success of the business as having had “the right product, at the right time, at the right price.” At $1.75 (later $1.98) every child with a minimum deposit in their piggy bank could scrape up enough money to order “100 Toy Soldiers Packed in a Footlocker.” In fact, the footlocker did not arrive for nearly a year, but its addition doubled an already thriving mail-order business. Cossman & Levine hired a staff of women to open the huge amounts of mail that arrived each day. Before long there were daily visits to the bank to deposit thousands of dollars in one-dollar bills and bags of quarters.

Soon, competitors were selling similar items with very similar advertising. The pitch was always the same: a lot of toys for a low price. Mastercraft, a Boston company, sold “100 Toy Soldiers for $1.00,” but did not include the important “footlocker” that held the Cossman & Co. playsets. It is believed that Levine and his brother-in-law either set up a number of separate companies (all with East Coast P.O. Boxes) or sold wholesale to other mail-order companies. New names with new mailing addresses began to appear by 1951 and endless variations of the offer were appearing.

Cossman also sold a popular “100 Cowboys & Indians” set. This set of western figures arrived in an illustrated box with a unique die-cut “pop-out, build-it-yourself” diorama. The plastic figures were typically flat but came in bright red, yellow and blue colors. “3 Ring Circus” was a popular offer that featured a pop-out center ring where the animals and performers could be arranged. Perhaps the pink and purple circus set was expected to attract little girls with imagination and a piggy bank. Levine has been quoted as saying the circus set did not do well.

Mail Order Mania
By 1952 there were dozens of competing ads. Most collectors assume the majority were in some way related, since the products were nearly identical.
In addition to the flat hard plastic pieces, new 3-D figures made of soft, molded plastic began to appear.

Sometime in the mid-50s ads were placed on the back pages of comic books and soon became icons of that decade. Millions of play sets were sold including these:
150 Civil War Soldiers ($1.49)
30pc Indian Village Kit ($1.00)
132 Roman Soldiers ($2.98)
200 WWII Soldiers ($1.98)
204 Revolutionary Soldiers ($2.50)
162pc Viking Attack ($2.00)
104 Kings & Knights ($1.49)
116 Planes of All Nations ($1.25)

There was also a line of wargame sets that included the plastic figures accompanied by full-color fold-out play mats, accessories, and rules of play.
Woods Edge ($1.00)
Tank Trap ($1.69)
Task Force ($1.69)
132pc Fighting Ships ($1.50)
196pc Blast Off Space Game ($1.98)
146pc Daniel Boone’s Trek to Ol’ Kentucky ($1.50)

The Evolution of Toy Soldier Ads
The comic book ads produced spectacular results and the toy sellers realized that a little packaging upgrade—at least in the print ads—might bring even more orders. Russ Heath was one of the preeminent illustrators of the time. His work for DC Comics and other publishers was well-known for its style.
His boss came to him with a small pick-up job to design an ad for an advertiser. Heath’s creation of the Revolutionary Soldiers ad set the standard for all future toy soldier offers. Of course, his ads worked like magic.  Heath’s imaginative styling added the action and adventure element that had been missing by just showing the plastic figures set up in rows.

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