Haven't had enough yet? A third article with
more of my pontification about the toy soldier world is
presented in this interview by Alex Heminway done for the
initial online publication in 1999 of the Fox Soldier
Chronicle (also extinct).
Conversation With William Hocker
William Hocker celebrates his 17th year as a manufacturer
and purveyor of metal toy soldiers. Since his 1983 debut at
the OTSN Show, he has consistently produced among the
world's finest toy soldiers. He lives and works in
California, where he is assisted by a talented staff of
women from the Mien tribe of Laos.
Heminway: There seems to be a growing interest in the
American Revolution as evidenced by new lines of matte
figures from King & Country and Conté (and of
course looking beyond the hobby to Columbia Picture's
imminent release of The Patriot). In recent years you have
created a number of beautiful sets from the Revolution. To
what do you attribute the broader population's resurgent
interest in the birth of their nation? And what peaked your
own interest in American themes after years of concentrating
on the Victorian era?
Hocker: To answer the last question first: Richard Walker,
the great toy soldier tinderbox , connected at the time to a
toy shop in Williamsburg, suggested a fife & drum band
that might be carried by the store. Research led to John
Mollo's book of Am Rev uniforms: it was a transforming
experience. The variety and color of the uniforms, the
historical significance, the dearth of things available, a
desire to begin an American slant to the products of an
American maker all came together. The fife & drum bands
were a non-starter at the store, but the net result of the
effort was our most successful and extensive range of goods.
Why the American Revolution now? It's a great subject and
the Civil War just might be at saturation levels. I don't,
however, sense an increase in popular interest in the
period, beyond the weekend bump that a movie might bring.
(Al Pacino's "Revolution!" didn't even create a bump.) I
would be pretty disappointed if a Hollywood flick had the
same impact on our business that the Ken Burns Civil War
documentary had, but you never know.
During your 16 years as a maker of toy soldiers, how many
sets have you produced? What was the first? Will you
discontinue any of these?
WH: We are
currently at set #267. The number of issues of any one set
is rather small - I would say the average is around 30, with
80 being a successful seller, so we've probably sold no more
than 9000 sets total. All sets may still be ordered -
everything is made to order and it matters little whether
we're working on an early or late set. As of this writing,
92 issues of our first set, Royal Engineers Balloon Section,
have been shipped. There are some sets that are so painful
to make that I would like to discontinue them, but it seems
more sensible just to raise the price.
do you begin to think about new campaigns of interest? Are
you a voracious reader of history? What new campaigns can
your collectors look forward to seeing from you?
WH: I am an
incompetent and impatient researcher. I try to learn just
enough to get the appropriate sets done and not embarrass
myself, seldom with complete success. For the first 12
years, the theme was a documentation of the Victorian Army,
and a new campaign was chosen each year to add to the group.
The American Revolution and Buffalo Bill have complicated
that formula. From this point on I would like to maintain an
American connection to the things that are done, but I'm not
quite sure right now of the exact direction.
role if any does whimsy play in your designs? In particular
I'm thinking of your extraordinary set 'The American
Century' and also a very charming set of children marching
in 'Types of the American Revolution'.
devoting my life to it, this is not an interest to take too
seriously. New toy soldiers are no longer children's toys,
but they exist because there is still a child in each of us
longing to play. Some collectors cloak this desire in the
adult realism and precision of "military miniatures", but
our things are meant to appeal to a baser instinct. The
toy-like "Britains" style adds an amount of whimsy that
might be killed in a more realistic treatment, but each year
I have also tried to produce unambiguous toys - building
blocks, the spinning Lord Cardigan, rolling horse teams,
pull-toy rowboats, articulated elephant, stacking gymnasts,
bucking bronco, etc. - that more directly make the
connection to childhood. I have allowed myself further
relief from the serious business of the year's major theme
with the creation of "Specialty Goods" which include
commemorative or serendipitous subjects like The American
Century, William Britain Sr. & Jr., Harry Phillips
auctioneer, the little toy soldier maker, etc. The most
charming sets are those containing children because suddenly
the child within us is placed in the scale of the toy
soldier world, and perhaps we see ourselves there on the
many years you have had a love affair with Britains. What is
it about their figures that has fired the hearts of so many
collectors? When and why did you begin collecting toy
soldiers? What do you feel motivated you psychologically to
WH: A broken
heart. Collecting most often revolves around childhood
nostalgia. Old Britains were prized toys for several
generations of children. The last of these is just now dying
off; for 25 years that generation has supplied the passion
behind the development of the new toy soldier world. My own
generation - one behind - was interested in plastic and
playsets, but in my college days Britians were still on the
toy store shelves. They were already antique remnants of a
previous era, 'collectibles' if you will, although I'm not
certain the term had been coined. In college I was
fascinated with an animated film Charles Eames had made
using his antique toy train collection. A classmate had
Britains from his childhood. We thought it would be
fantastic to make a film like that. This was 1966, and I
bought some sets from F.A.O. Schwartz. I couldn't buy too
many: at $5 a box the cost was astronomical. It was the last
year Britains sold hollow cast figures and the stock
evaporated from store shelves. No longer able to collect the
army of my dreams, I was heartbroken. The film didn't get
made. The soldiers remained in a closet for 15 years. After
life settled down, I pulled them out of the closet and the
fascination was rekindled. I started scrounging out places
to buy. A large part of the passion, as with any lost love,
has come from having missed the opportunity the first time
led you from architecture to casting and painting your own
figures? Was there a correlation between your two
WH: Yes. I
found my new career while desperately seeking relief from
the real-world stresses of my old career. As a Britians
collector, my interests tended toward quantity over quality,
and I found myself buying lots of damaged and repainted
Britains and restoring them back to their original glory.
The techniques needed in these "restorations" (some might
use another term) - soldering, sculpting, mold making,
painting - were equally applicable to new figures. At the
time the interest in new toy soldiers was just beginning to
flower in the US (Jan and Frank Scroby had begun the
movement a decade earlier in the UK), Malcolm Forbes was out
of the closet and the last hollow-cast Britains generation
was just reaching it's peak buying power. 5 sets were
concocted for sale at the 1983 OTSN show, and the rest, as
they say, is history.
you use hollow or solid casting? What type of paint do you
use on your figures?
Hollow-casting, which requires metal molds and a fair amount
of skilled casting technique, has gone the way of the
typewriter. There are a few nostalgic souls out there doing
it using old molds (and one, Bill Lango, using his own new
molds!) but generally figures are cast in much less
expensive rubber molds, a material not conducive to
are regular hobby shop enamels that come in those little
expensive bottles. Although I've tried many less expensive
alternatives, none have proven as satisfactory.
There is a
more complete technical description of our entire operation
on our web site [above].
staff is comprised almost entirely of people from the Mien
tribe of Laos. How did you meet these very talented
WH: This is
an amazing group of people, with an amazing story to tell.
The Mien hill tribe farmers of Laos were forced into
military support of the American "secret war" against the
Vietnamese. They were left with no support when the
Americans left South-East Asia, and, fearful of communist
retaliation, fled to Thailand. They spent years in
relocation camps before being sponsored by religious groups
to come to the US, only to be resettled into the racial war
zone of public housing projects. Despite coming from a
pre-literate agricultural society, they learned how to read
and write and drive, how to get jobs in an industrial
society, how to cope with government bureaucracy and hostile
urban neighborhoods, how to save money on minimal incomes,
how to deal with the complexity of American life (which
after a lifetime I still don't seem to be able to master)
all while trying to raise the 4 or 5 kids typical of
pre-industrial families. They are now US citizens, with
their own homes, SUV's and American lifestyles, and those
children are now in college, in one generation jumping over
several steps of industrial evolution. It is a remarkable
story of triumph over adversity.
necessary skill and patience of hand craft are an inherent
part of the Mien culture. That making toy soldiers was one
of the few jobs in America that required such skills was a
fortuitous coincidence. My first recruit was cleaning house
next door before being mustered into the workshop. She then
became the recruiting officer for the next person, and
since, whenever a new person was needed, consensus of the
work force would produce one. Since I am a lousy "human
resource" manager, this has been a perfect solution.
in your mind is the current state of the hobby? Do you feel
younger collectors are taking an interest in toy
interest in "old" toy soldiers, things that really were
childhood toys, are dependent on the change in demographics
in the collectors. Collecting is basically a middle-aged
interest. The 20-somethings are too mobile while the elderly
have their collections and are looking toward divestiture.
The childhood toys of that middle-aged group are the current
hot collectibles; in my tenure we have seen the shift in
interest from hollow/solid cast metals, compositions, and
dimestores to plastic figures and playsets with G.I.Joe and
other abominations now in the wings.
soldiers have their origins in the nostalgic passion for
older things, but their future direction is more complicated
and has much to do with the emergence of a new "world"
economy. Speaking only of 54mm metals, there are now more
makers of this style than ever before. Through the early
90's they were only cottage industries (with Britains, Ltd.
struggling to find its place in the collectors market) and a
shortage of goods was the rule in the new toy soldier world.
Collectors remained small in number, passionate but
proportionate to the supply. Since the rise of Chinese
factory production, the infusion of available stock and
greater marketing muscle has certainly begun to increase the
collector base. Also in the 90's, military miniatures (an
interest that had been left to the do-it-yourself hobbyist)
emerged as an affordable collectible thanks to the Russians.
This influence has been felt in the style of the Chinese
things. On top of this the Internet has had an enormous
impact, as it has in every area, in exposing the world to
toy soldiers. Although it is still a small niche in the
world market for collectibles, I would have to say that the
interest in new collectible toy soldiers is stronger than it
has ever been.
industry producers like us, the blessings are mixed. There
are more customers out there and through the Internet they
are much easier to reach than ever before. However, there is
a tendency in the information age toward mega-consolidation
after a brief period of proliferation. Whether or not such a
specialized niche business will follow the trends of the
mass market world is an open question, but at this point it
still seems that the increased interest in toy soldiers is a
benefit to all involved.