Growing up, how many of us played with toy soldiers? Some were metal. Many were green plastic. But all gave us hours of enjoyment as we fought mock battles on sandpiles and in the grass. Prominently displayed in the Varnum Memorial Armory Museum, however, is a collection of tiny soldiers representing a broad swath of history. They reside in a well-lit glass display thanks to Howard Vernon Allen, a founding member of the Varnum Continentals and its commanding officer for some 55 year. “H.V.”, or “The Colonel” as he was known (and he was a Lieutenant Colonel of the State and then R.I. National Guard for many years), was an inveterate collector of artifacts representing military and maritime history. Many of the rare artifacts displayed in the museum were acquired by him over his many decades of leadership. But he had a special area of interest: toy soldiers.
For many years, the majority of the collection now displayed in the museum resided in orderly rows on shelves in his stately 18th century home, the Captain Oliver Gardiner House, at 4451 Post Road in Warwick, RI. Although he had a special area of interest in the American Revolution, the collection contains examples of soldiers from many eras, from the Crusades to the 20th century.
There is the British Royal Coronation Coach representing the 1911 coronation of King George V (with the King and Queen Mary seated in the coach) escorted by a full military guard. There are German Hessians, Arabs, Egyptians on camels and even representatives of historic Rhode Island chartered militias, including the Newport Artillery, the Kentish Guards, and the Bristol Train of Artillery. Proudly standing amongst their fellow miniature military men are representatives of the Varnum Continentals (more on that in a moment). There are figures from the American Civil War, both World Wars and the collection includes soldiers from both American and English manufacturers, in metal and plastic. Quoted in a Providence Sunday Journal article from June 20, 1948, Colonel Allen said that, in his opinion,
“The English make the best toy soldiers for not only are their color schemes authentic, but the detail is far better than that of those made in other countries.”
Although he said he did occasionally take the figures out and arrange them in appropriate formations, he was quick to point out that his collection was not meant to be played with because of their relatively delicate construction and decoration. He told his interviewer that during the American Revolution, there were colorful uniforms, but then there was a period when soldiers dressed in rather drab attire, except for their dress uniforms. And, the Varnum Armory collection has some of the most colorful. Colonel Allen explained that many military units were influenced by Napoleon Bonaparte who once said, “A soldier must learn to love his profession, must look to it to satisfy all his tastes and sense of honor. That is why handsome uniforms are useful.”
The H.V. Allen Collection includes toy soldiers that were handed down through several generations of his family and many are of European manufacture. As a collector, the colonel paid special attention to every detail including the exact configuration and even color match of the original uniforms. The wrong shade, even on a toy soldier, would have put the tiny military man out of the colonel’s favor.
Allen used to enjoy taking his soldiers out of their display case and arranging them in various battle formations to demonstrate particular military encounters. Some are in action poses and there are several dioramas including a World War I medical unit and U.S. Civil War artillery. There are even several miniature cannons acquired by the colonel over the years.
As mentioned, Colonel Allen was a military miniature collector, not a military model maker or painter. Many of his figures came from Great Britain manufacturers. Long-time Varnum member and museum curator, the late Don Marcum was an avid model painter. The Varnum’s own Col. Larry McDonald is member of the latter fraternity. “I’ve donated a couple of sets to the Varnum collection,” he told this writer. “When I first started collecting and painting, I had the opportunity to acquire a couple of sets of figures done by another Jamestown resident. One was a boxed set of the Continentals guard produced for the 1936 Rhode Island Tercentenary Observance”, he noted. “H.V. had some individual figures but this was a full set of an officer and four men. It was quite a find.” Larry has also donated a Civil War cannon set representing the First Rhode Island Light Artillery’s Battery B to the collection. “Don had portions of the set and I was able to complete it with purchases at flea markets and from dealers”, he said.
Following Don Marcum’s passing, Larry acquired most of his unpainted collection of figures from his widow. “There are a number of figures in the Varnum collection done by Don who was an award-winning painter,” he said. Larry added that Marcum was particularly interested in the figures representing the American Revolution and that he has a number of unpainted figures that Don had acquired but never completed. Many of these were manufactured in the 1960s and 1970s by the American company Imre/Risley. “They are probably the best American-made figures,” he noted.
There are a number of dealers specializing in painted and unpainted figures ranging in size from a small as one inch in height to three inches or so, in plastic and metal. They cover every era in human history. Antique toy soldiers made from tin or lead are of particular interest to collectors but require special care to preserve them from deterioration (lead has been banned in the manufacture of toy soldiers since 1966). Plastic has become popular among collectors and modelers. Hard plastics can be painted and then assembled in action poses as opposed to soft plastic pieces which represent a large percentage of models currently sold.
For those interested in more information, try going online to toysoldierco.com. An informative book is “Collecting Toy Soldiers in the 21st Century” by James Opie and published in England by Pen & Sword Books Ltd. in 2011
The Varnum Memorial Armory Museum collection display case includes information cards so that viewers can identify the various figures. Among the many rare artifacts on display in our museum, the toy soldier case in the Commander’s Office is well worth the time to visit.