Copyright 1996, 2003 T. Sheil & A. Sheil All Rights Reserved
The major influence on our appreciation of the Wild West came from two sources: movies and television. As Westerns were popular fare in the 40s and 50s, children had plenty of materials on which to base their play. The toymakers came through with a tremendous variety of figures and accessories. Several offered western forts and covered wagons. Marx's Fort Apache was the premier wild west fort of the time, and MPC had the best selection of wagons. Timmee, Lido, Marx, MPC, Ideal, Giant and a slew of no-name makers produced tremendous numbers of Cowboy, Indian and cavalry figures. Figures were molded in almost every color under the sun.
The standard cowboy wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. Most brandished the six-gun; a few carried rifles. In each set was at least one cowboy swinging a lasso. Lasso figures could be mounted or on foot, and they added a special dimension to play. Many a badman found himself captured by the lariat man! If any one item had almost universal applications, it was the lasso. It could snare and enemy, capture a horse, or loop on a rock abutment so cowboys could climb to safety.
Indians were armed in many ways, from the traditional spear, bows-and arrows, tomahawks and knives to six guns and rifles. What set Indians apart was their attire. Almost all wore feathers, be it a single feather in a headband to a full western headdress. And every maker's assortment included the accouterments of several tribes. It was not unusual to find a figure in Iroquois clothing and a Sioux headdress! One common figure to appear in many Western playsets was a very Eastern Mohawk figure. To complete the anachronism, this 18th century hero was part and parcel of a 19th century war!
The special weapon of the Indians was fire arrows. These could set fire to wooden forts and covered wagons. They were the "Indian flamethrower" - a super weapon whose playtime performance far exceeded any real-world counterparts.
MPC's cowboys were ring-hand fellows with separate guns, pistol belts, and hats.
The Cavalry sported either the later US cavalry Uniform, circa 1885, or were merely Civil War Union troops included in a Western set. Kids didn't care, because on black-and-white TV, there was little to distinguish Civil War from later cavalry gear. In both wars, wide-brimmed hats and kepis were common.
Three Indians were sure to show up in every battle: Geronimo, a long-time favorite, Cochise, known from a TV series called Broken Arrow, and Tonto, the partner of the Lone Ranger. These three were heroes, even if the Indians were supposed to be the bad guys in our games.
Marx was the undoubted master of Wild West toys. Its Fort Apache was the premier wild west set. In the early 1960s, this set came with a plastic fort, tin-litho barracks, cannon, well and other accessories, plus Indians, a few mounted cavalrymen, and a mix of Davy Crockett and Cavalry figures. One earlier version's walls were tin-litho; a later version was actually a briefcase that opened into the fort. Later, new cavalry figures replaced the Davy Crockett frontiersmen. Fort Apache was without doubt the grand playset of all time.
Several companies tried to equal Marx's set. MPC's set included covered wagons and a smaller fort made of soft plastic, for instance. I have seen recent forts made along the same lines. It is always a wooden fort similar to those seen in the movies. Many Indians are recasts and copies - some better than others - of Marx Indians, along with a few odd types cloned from Timpo, Giant, Ideal, or any of a dozen nondescript makers. Cavalry figures vary, too. I've seen clones of Marx, Timpo, Airfix and others.
We found that several makers still produce bags of Cowboys and Indians. There are several playsets, as well - usually centered around a Western cavalry fort. Marx has re-issued two types of Fort Apache. One is the fort with the hard plastic fence sections, another being the tin-litho version. Redbox has its own Fort Buffalo, a western fort with clones of Airfix Cowboys and Indians.
Several companies offer their own sets. As mentioned above, they are mainly clones of Airfix, Timpo and Marx. Clones vary in quality and detail. We've seen some that retain high detail, and others that are little better than plastic lumps. One bag from Jar Ru had so many flash spurs that we needed a pocketknife before they looked normal. The amazing thing is how many cowboys and Indians are cloned from Airfix. It is hard to find original figures from other makers.
A sad note - John from Long Island mentioned that kids don't play cowboys and Indians any more - they don't even know how to play it. When coaching a flag football team, he told kids that buckling on the protective gear was just like buckling on a belt for a six-shooter. His explanation went right over their leads. The kids had no concept of gun belts or cowboys. Supporting evidence was on the shelves of Toys R Us. Soldiers moved well enough, but the Western sets went almost untouched. In the 50s and 60s, the stores couldn't restock them fast enough! Today, Western sets and cowboys and Indians languish on store shelves. As we say in New York, "Ya gotta wonder...."
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