Toy soldiers go far back in history, but the earliest plastic little men date to just after World War II, when manufacturers wanted a cheaper material that coincidentally was safer than earlier figures made of lead. The first plastic toy soldiers were unpainted, but as time passed, manufacturers went back to the earlier practice of painting some of them.
By the mid-1950s various companies manufactured toy soldiers in plastic, lead and a substance called composition. Retail stores and the Sears catalog sold the 2 1/4-inch plastic soldiers in sets that included World War II Allied and Axis soldiers, accessories and vehicles. Many governments outlawed lead in toys in 1966 over concerns about toxicity, so manufacturers started making only plastic toy soldiers. Not long after, manufacturers started adding painted plastic soldiers that were even more detailed and sophisticated than the lead models.
As the 20th century progressed, manufacturers added cowboys and Indians, space explorers, aqua men, knights, Vikings and other types of figures, painted and unpainted. Plastic toy soldier popularity died out beginning in the 1960s and '70s as more people became concerned about issues of war and peace. Toy soldiers made a resurgence in the late 1980s and '90s, in plastics especially but in metals, too. As of 2015, there are more than 30 manufacturers of toy plastic soldiers in the United States and Europe. They manufacture figures from many eras of history and fields of action.