The wild, Wild West
Alwyn Brice has been out riding the range...
One false move and I’ll fill you full o’ lead.” I’m not sure exactly where that line originates (quite probably a Hollywood gangster B movie), but it is exceedingly apposite for the subject of this article, that of hollowcast cowboys and Indians.
To fully appreciate the inexorable rise of these little toys it is only necessary to delve into the archives of 1950s media. According to online databases, there were upwards of 80 (yes, 80!) television series airing in that decade, all of which were focussed on the Wild West. Predictably, virtually all were shot in the USA and whilst only a handful made it across the Pond, they were, in the main, long-running series. Western productions like Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, Bonanza and Rawhide, for example, proved very popular over here during this decade; in fact, the Bonanza boys would finally hang up their stetsons in 1973, while Gunsmoke only dissipated in 1975.
But since the UK lagged the US when it came to tuning in to a small box in the lounge, the cinema plugged the gap. There were literally hundreds of westerns churned out in the 1950s – indeed, viewing all today would form the basis of an interesting collection in its own right.
The public loved the genre and any British child of the time would have been seduced by the totally alien scenery (ask yourself: when did you last see tumbleweed passing your front door?), the wide open spaces and the ever-present danger presented by gunslingers or unhappy natives (quite why the Indians were always bereft of good PR has always puzzled me).
In consequence, cowboys ‘n’ Indians formed the basis of many an outdoor game – and manufacturers were quick to catch on to the trend.
HOLLOWCAST HEROES AND VILLAINS
Before plastic, with its manifold advantages, swept all before it, lead was the preferred medium for producing figurines. Today, these toys wouldn’t stand a cat’s chance in Hades: apart from the toxicity of the subject matter there was the paint that could be licked off. Amazingly, though, generations of children survived these potentially lethal playthings.
What, then, is the attraction of reliving the Wild West in lead? Well, if you were in the UK during those pre-plastic years, there was a wide choice of homegrown manufacturers. Doughty Britains had been churning out lead figures since the early 1900s and so there wasn’t much you could tell that particular company about casting and painting techniques.
Its cowboy and Indian range was large, and encompassed both foot and mounted figures. Of interest are some of the cowboys which have a moveable arm, a device that Britains introduced before anyone else. Britains also produced a covered wagon with a four horse team, which is worth looking out for.
Other major exponents of the Wild West include Johillco and Cherilea: these two makers are intertwined a little, since Wilf Cherrington (who established Cherilea) was formerly employed at Johillco.
Between this pair there is quite a collection to build up. The figures are very similar in shape and size to those of Britains and indeed, you can also find the occasional cowboy by Cherilea (on foot and mounted) with a moveable arm. Some of the riders are detachable whilst others are not. A favourite of mine is the Johillco cowboy shooting from behind his prone horse, which is a really imaginative pose. (This pose was
later translated into plastic).
Whilst on Johillco, the stagecoach, with two horses, a driver and his shotgun-toting pardner is an absolute must. I’ve seen this rig with a fixed shaft or swivelling shaft; thin axles or a thicker variety; and even an example bearing the MADE IN FRANCE rubric (there has to be a story behind that). Various colours have been recorded and this delight still surfaces with its box.
Crescent was yet another provider, as was Harvey (Lone*Star). Crescent Indians tend to boast metallic bronze skin tones, so are easy to identify. There’s a standing fellow banging on a drum who is worth bagging, simply for the unusual pose. Crescent also thoughtfully helped out with a totem pole, something overlooked by many suppliers.
As for Lone*Star, some of the Indians look very familiar and certainly ape the poses of Britains; I wouldn’t say they were copies, but...
Charbens was reliving the Wild West before the Second World War but its range is less common and by now, many figures will have suffered damage and/or considerable paint loss. One or two figures stand out, such as the cowboy on a rearing horse, clearly at some sort of rodeo.
Finally, don’t forget Timpo. This manufacturer would later take plastic in its stride but amongst its lead gems are figures for the campfire, as well as the campfire itself. Painting tends to be more painstaking on Timpo models; and mounted figures occasionally turn up with their colourful boxes.
PROBLEMS AND PLEASURES
If you decide to go down this collecting route, then a caveat. Many of the lead Wild West figures produced have no casting marks or clues to manufacturer; in fact, putting rival products side by side, it’s hard to tell some makers apart. Quality of casting wasn’t particularly high, so definition is lost; but to be honest, that didn’t matter because these toys probably relied upon their bright colour schemes to attract kids’ pocket money.
Reference material is thus clearly a necessity but again there’s a problem here, because many companies didn’t produce much in this context, being presumably more focussed on simply getting their toys into the marketplace. The bible, if that’s the mot juste, has to be fellow writer/collector Norman Joplin’s The Great Hollowcast Book, which has copious illustrations and will answer most queries. But even this volume has a section devoted to unknown or unattributed figures.
Next, there’s the advertisements that you’ll come across on the internet. Whilst many sellers have researched their subject matter, not all have – so beware of buying figures that may not be as described in terms of maker.
In consequence, it’s not easy to collect, say, just one manufacturer’s output, and you may well find yourself adding other figures to your established ranks. The fact is, these miniatures all resemble each other with only minor variations in height – so if you want a good display, then opting for several manufacturers is probably a wise decision.
The good news is that these figurines are largely unloved because collectors of a certain age have looked to plastic to recreate their childhoods. Thus they can be bought relatively cheaply these days, anything from a fiver upwards. They crop up frequently in antique shops and at boot fairs, and so are readily available.