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Military in miniature: Pastor collects soldier figures

John Stewart holds one of his collectibles in the room where many of them are displayed. (Beth Rickers/Daily Globe)1 / 5
Toy soldiers made by Britains are displayed in a curio cabinet in the Stewart home.2 / 5
The Spanish-American War of 1892 is one area of interest in John Stewart's collection.3 / 5
This box of rare toy soldiers is lined with a newspaper dating back to the time they were first purchased.4 / 5
Soldiers that have the patina of play are displayed on a shelf in the Stewart home.5 / 5

WORTHINGTON — Condition is important in the world of collectibles. If the collectible comes with its original packaging and has been handled very little, the more valuable it is.

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Among his assemblage of toy soldiers, however, John Stewart is most intrigued by the ones that are a bit worn and obviously well-loved.

“I like to think about what kid played with this,” he said, fingering a metal figure that has the patina of regular handling. “Is this something somebody got for Christmas?”

John, the co-pastor at First Covenant Church with his wife, Kris, has collected small-scale soldiers for a number of years, but his fascination with the toys began when he was a child.

“As a kid in Chicago, we lived in an apartment, so we didn’t have much space, so I’d play with blocks, soldiers,” he recalled. “We’d go down to Marshall Fields every year, and in the toy area, they’d have all these displays, and one year they had a big setup of soldiers. While you were waiting in line for Santa, they were at eye-level, of course, on purpose.”

A former Marine who served in an anti-tank unit from 1980-’84, John also has a fascination with history — and those interests all intersected  when he discovered the world of toy soldier collecting.

“I saw a one-inch ad in some magazine — “Make Your Own Toy Soldiers,” remembered John. “It was an introductory kit, and I showed it to Kris. ... Then, when we moved here, I came across a guy who sold toy soldiers in Burnsville, and he asked if I’d ever been to the toy soldier show in Chicago. Now I’ve gone every year, almost, for 18 years, only missed a couple.”

The realm of toy soldiers is expansive, including sets depicting all the major wars that have occurred and oftentimes even specific battles. Some of the most collectible figures are manufactured by Britains, a British toy manufacturer that invented a process for hollow casting in lead in 1893 and became the industry leader.

“From 1893, it became like the Legos of the toy world at the time, and they numbered all their sets,” John explained. “They did a lot of different regiments, sets.”

John’s personal assembly of figurines includes some Britains, but also examples of cheaper dime-store models and ones that he cast himself in rubber molds.

“These were meant to be played with,” he said, holding up an example of a slightly larger model that would have originally come from the dime store. “Kids could go in and get one for a nickel.”

There are certain periods in history in which John is most interested, particularly the time before World War II. He likes to collect figures that were created just before World War II — both American and British — and a few international soldier figures were also available. He has a quite rare Italian soldier, as well as Japanese and even Finnish figures from that time.

“I like the older stuff,” he said. “I’m more selective when I go to the big show than when I’m out and around at an antique store. If I find anything (in a store) in a box, I’ll buy it. You’ll sometimes find some quirky stuff.”

One segment of John’s collection is devoted to the Spanish-American War of 1898, a somewhat obscure era in our country’s history. In addition to the soldier figurines, he’s found a few other items of memorabilia related to the time.

“I realized there’s not a lot of stuff out there if I wanted to have a comprehensive collection,” he said about focusing on that conflict. “I get a kick out of that here’s a hat and a book and figurines that kind of present that era. You can’t do that with World War II.”

A room in the lower level of the Stewarts’ house is used to display much of John’s collection on shelving that was built by a friend. The soldiers are staged with other assorted pieces of military memorabilia, including a painting of a naval battle that John purchased when he was just a boy. Some of the finer Britains pieces that he has purchased are housed in a curio cabinet across from artifacts related to his grandfather’s service in the Scottish Army — another source of historical fascination.

“I usually try to find things that are harder to find,” said John about his collecting strategy. “There’s so much of the new stuff, and I don’t have the room, the time or the money to get into that.

“A growing interest of mine is also the Old West,” John added. “You don’t find very much of it — and there’s lots of plastic — but it’s also very collectible.

A publication, Old Toy Soldier, is devoted to the hobby, and John has written articles that have been published in it. For instance, on a visit to the Little Falls boyhood home of Charles Lindbergh, he discovered that the famed aviator had an extensive collection of toy soldiers, so he submitted that story and photographs. Other notable collectors of toy soldiers are Winston Churchill, Malcom Forbes and the Bush family, he added.

“For me, it’s not just the history or how they look,” reflected John about what he enjoys about being a toy soldier hobbyist. “I do like the making of the stuff, and the research I find interesting. I think it’s just the different facets of it. It’s not just one thing.”

John enjoys sharing his hobby and expertise with anyone who might be interested and is especially happy to take a look at any toy soldier specimens people may find when they are cleaning out a drawer or at a flea market or antique store.

“The bottom line with this stuff is if it’s metal, snag it up unless someone’s asking a ridiculous amount for it,” he advised. “If it’s old, you might even have a piece that’s rare. Give me a call or check on eBay. I’m certainly more than happy to help people out.”

Daily Globe Features Editor Beth Rickers

can be reached at 376-7327.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

(507) 376-7327