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William Howe Downes (1854-1941) was a writer and an eminent art critic for the Boston Evening Transcript as well as an occasional contributor to Harper’s and other magazines. Born in Derby, Connecticut, Downes rose to fame on the strength of his biographies such as John S. Sargent, his Life and Work and The Life and Works of Winslow Homer.

Frontispiece of The Tin Army of the Potomac

Downes had a foible for toy soldiers and a young son named Walter. Putting two and two together, he offered to teach Walter the fundamentals of warfare by recreating the battles of the American Civil War on the nursery table. ‘Oh, goody!’ said Walter. The course was a success and William decided to write a booklet [1] about it, enlisting the help of illustrator J.F. Goodridge.

In the course of this educational exercise the Bostonian father and son sided openly with the Union. Newly acquired models were invariably incorporated into the Union Army, all damaged toy soldiers were relegated to the ‘rebel’ ranks.

Jackson’s men are solid, heavy, leaden veterans, most of whom have lost their heads, but keep on fighting just as well without them.

Of rules there seem to have been none; they are not even hinted at in the text of the booklet. But then father and son are recreating battles, not replaying them. ‘Mimic war’ is the term Downes employs. But what brand of models did they use? The booklet does not mention any brand, but it provides some clues as to their manufacturers. The collection was a ragged bunch of varying sizes and nationalities, wrote Downes, but most of the models hailed from Germany ‘where many toys are made’.

Infantry, cavalry, and artillery are to be had in neat boxes, with all their arms and equipments – guns, swords, flags, cannons, tents, and even fires already smoking, with the cook at work getting supper ready for the hungry troops.

So we’re looking for German manufacturers of solid metal toy soldiers and accessories produced around 1880 (to be on the safe side) whose cavalry figures in particular – judging by Goodridge’s illustrations in the booklet – were thin and highly stylised.

At first sight only one firm qualifies: the Heyde company in Dresden, founded by Georg Heyde in 1872 shortly after Bismarck’s troops had defeated Napoleon III’s. The factory was obliterated in 1945 in the allied firebombing of the city, when any business and municipal records of Georg Heyde and sons were destroyed as well.

Heyde produced soldiers for a world market and always adapted quickly to current affairs by introducing topical models for every fresh outbreak of war. If need be they simply molded new heads and other accoutrements which were plugged in to existing models prior to painting. Their smallest size was 40mm. Heyde models bore no trademarks, but they are distinguished by their fragile, elegant appearance and sense of humour and humanity.

Heyde cavalry

Heyde’s figures were unique for other reasons as well. Georg Heyde noticed that his competitors were selling boxes of models in identical poses: marching, firing, etcetera. He began to market boxes with a variety of poses and including all sorts of life-like accessories, which caused a sensation among boyish and adult collectioneers alike.

Heyde’s soldiers did much more than march, shoot or charge; they bivouacked with mugs of coffee and bottles of schnapps, lit fires, played cards, slept, fell wounded or even lay dead. Another trademark was the flame and smoke emitting from the rifle muzzle. [..] Heyde’s reign expanded through continental Europe, England and the United States with a clamorous success [2].

Heyde American War of Independence campsite box, circa 1880

Meanwhile little Walter’s Army of the Potomac soldiered on from Manassas – pardon: Bull Run! – to Fair Oakes and the Chikahominy River, to Malvern Hill (represented by a pile of music books), Antietam, Chancellorsvile, Gettysburg…

And one day, when his Uncle John spoke of some friend who was wounded at Gettysburg, what was his surpise when Walter asked “Was it on the third day?

The true lesson of the exercise meanwhile was pushed home at the end of the booklet, reflecting the typical American attitude to war of that time.

[1] Downes, William Howe, The Tin Army of the Potomac, or, A Kindergarten of War, illustrations by J.F. Goodridge, 38 pp (hardcover), S.E. Cassino, Boston, 1888, digitally available in the Open Library and elsewhere

[2] Lee Preston, A History of Miniature Figures (III), An Age of Expansion, in: Figure International, No. 3, September 2002, pp 8-9

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