Zinnfiguren (literally ‘tin figures’, but sometimes ‘lead soldiers’ in English) were first made in Germany in the mid-eighteenth century as a tribute to Frederick the Great (1712-86), king of Prussia. In 1775 Johann Gottfried Hilpert (1748-1832) and his brother Johann Georg Hilpert (1733-1811) set up a workshop to manufacture model soldiers in Nuremberg. Most were made of an alloy of tin and lead akin to pewter. Early examples were two-dimensional but manufacturers increasingly produced three-dimensional models through the nineteenth century. ‘Tin soldiers’ were popular as children’s toys, although their lead content has led to their replacement by plastic figures in recent times. They were also bought in large numbers by collectors who assembled them in dioramas representing particular periods and themes, which were not necessarily military.
The museum of tin soldiers at Kulmbach in Upper Franconia has been located in Plassenburg, the castle around which the town grew up; the collection dates from 1929. Some 300,000 figures are displayed on four floors in 150 dioramas, whose subjects range from antiquity to the twentieth century. The largest portrays the battle on St Conrad;’s Day, 26 November 1553, when Kulmbach was almost destroyed by enemy forces during the peasant wars. Other dioramas show the Napoleonic Wars including the French retreat from Moscow, the American west, battles between the Conquistadores and the Aztecs, and scenes from Neibelungenlied. Most figures are displayed according to subject, but some by manufacturers such as Georg Heyde & Co of Dresden.