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Lead Toy Soldier Casting Kit

Toy-Moulds set made by the Make-A-Toy Co. and used by the Asmuth family of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1930s.
(Museum object #1962.228.30,A-U)

In recent years there has been renewed concern over the amount of lead showing up in the materials comprising children's toys, particularly those produced in China. Consumer outrage over unsafe levels prompted some the of largest toy makers to issue massive recalls. Can you imagine the reaction if a toy, made entirely of lead, was available to children today? At one time, however, companies like the Make-a-Toy, Co. of New York City not only sold lead toys, but also kits that boys could use to mold their own lead soldiers at home. Anton and Jane Asmuth of Milwaukee, Wisconsin acquired this set around 1930 for their three adolescent sons, Anton, Jr., Robert, and James who all made figures with the kit.

Today the health hazards of ingesting lead are well-documented. In growing children, even low levels of lead in the bloodstream can cause developmental problems, including lower IQs, attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, and behavioral challenges. Higher lead levels cause convulsions, coma, and even death. It was not until the mid-1960s, however, that consumers in the United States became concerned about the safety of lead toys. Prior to that time, lead toy figures such as soldiers, "cowboys and Indians", and animals were popular with both children and adults.

Lead toy figures were introduced into the United States from Europe in the early 20th century. 54mm models, particularly soldiers, were also collected by grown men, including Winston Churchill and H. G. Wells. Around the same time that commercially-produced lead toy figures arrived in the United States, home casting kits also made their way into the market from Germany. These sets contained most of the equipment needed to make toy models at home, including molds, lead bars, enamel paints, and sample toys. Simple casting sets such as these allowed children to make their own lead toys at home.

Home casting, promoted as a father-son activity, involved heating the mold "over a gaslight, lamp, candle, or burning paper a few minutes," melting the metal in a ladle "over a gas or coal stove," and then pouring the molten lead into the hot mold. Figures could be painted after they had cooled. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, companies also promoted home casting as a way for individuals to earn money by producing figures in their home "foundries" for resale. A shortage of lead and other metals during World War II caused a decline in home casting, but its popularity reappeared after the war and continued for several more decades.

In the post-war years manufacturers began to produce many toy figures from plastic. Sales of plastic toy soldiers, a cheaper alternative than metal, began to cut into the lead figure market, but health issues did not come to the fore until some time later in the United States. Although consumer groups like the Consumers Union began to question the safety of lead toys, the issue was still being debated in the mid-1960s. For example, as late as September 1966 an article in Science News was titled "Chronic lead poisoning no threat to U.S." In the case of casting kits, the main concern seems to have been exposure to hot metal rather than the threat of lead itself.

Although European countries banned lead-based paints as early as 1909, the United States lagged behind in its efforts to regulate the use of lead in consumer products due largely to lobbying efforts by the lead industry. Leaded gasoline was phased out between 1973 and 1995, and in 1978 Congress passed a law banning lead in house paint in quantities of more than 600 parts per million. Lead levels in toys is currently regulated by the 2002 Federal Hazardous Substances Act, which bans any children's product containing hazardous levels of lead without specifying exactly the level. The Lead Free Toys Act, introduced unsuccessfully in Congress in 2005, was reintroduced in 2007 in an attempt to tighten the regulation of this substance in children's merchandise.

Society's standards for the safety of children's toys have evolved considerably since the early 20th century, and today there is a greater effort to control the risk of lead ingestion by children. Stricter standards will continue to evolve as new scientific discoveries are made and new, safer materials developed. Ironically, though, it was market forces that "killed off" the lead toy soldier for children long before health concerns required regulative action. Lead toy molds are still on the market today, but they are sold primarily to serious lead soldier enthusiasts.

[Sources: Campbell, Richard. "Homecast Toy Molds," available online at www.concentric.net; Lanphear, Bruce P.. "Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program: Too Little, Too Late." Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 293 No 18: 2274-2276; Poole, Edward K. "The American Soldier in Homecast," in Richard O'Brien (ed.), Collecting Toy Soldiers: An Identification and Value Guide (Florence, AL: Books Americana, Inc., 1988); Toy Soldier Company. "A Brief History of Toy Soldiers," available online at www.toysoldierco.com/CompanyInfo/; personal commincation between WHS staff and James Asmuth, December 2007.]

CLH/JEK


Posted on December 20, 2007

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