Charles Stewart used to store 3,200 years of military history on the shelves in his Frankfort bedroom, attic and garage.
His collection of 10,000 toy soldiers represents battles from ancient Egypt to the Gulf War, and it will soon become a permanent fixture at the Frasier History Museum in Louisville.
“I had so much, it was actually starting to take over the house,” he said with a smile, standing next to curatorial assistant
Wesley Spencer as she lined up tiny soldiers in a class case this week.
Stewart calls the collection “one of the most diverse in the country,” with soldiers and military vehicles by 60 manufacturers hailing from every continent except Antarctica.
Combined with another 2,000 paper-thin toy soldiers called “flats” donated by Long Island, N.Y., collector Orson Munn, it’s expected to be one of the largest toy soldier collections on public display in the country, museum officials say.
Stewart is a lifelong fan of toy soldiers, but he began collecting them in earnest 20 years ago. He soon met Florida collector Peter Werner, considered one of the top collectors in the country, who became a mentor in his quest for figurines.
He considered selling the collection at auction, but his father, Dr. John Stewart of Stewart Home School, convinced him to keep it in Kentucky. The Frazier Museum came out on top after consulting with representatives of the Kentucky History Center, he said.
Frazier Museum staff have spent more than a year cataloging the vast collection and installed it in 16 cases alongside uniforms, photos and other historical items in its permanent galleries.
They have created backgrounds for the battle scenes and added their own debris, rocks and spirals of barbed wire.
The collection consists of figurines produced in the late 1700s to the present day, including one of the country’s largest displays of soldiers from the St. Petersburg Collection, along with Haffner, M.I.M., Lucotte, Britains, Fouille and Marklin models. The collection’s value could not be disclosed.
Besides battle scenes, Stewart has collections of soldiers that represent processions to the coronation and wedding of Queen Elizabeth II and the funeral of Napoleon.
“These little figures depict real historical events and people,” Frazier Museum Executive Director Madeleine Burnside said.
“We wanted to create a unique and educational way to display them, so they’ll be exhibited side by side with genuine artifacts.”
Burnside – who has her own small army of toy soldiers lining a shelf in her office – says she was looking for a collection when Stewart arrived on the museum’s doorstep.
It’s part of a plan to shift the museum’s focus from guns and weapons to a more comprehensive collection of historical items.
Toy soldiers are charming, she says, and they offer a way for the museum to appeal to more people.
“A lot of museums have toy soldiers, but don’t show them, so we think we’re pretty cutting edge in this,” she said.
The museum is developing a mobile app to help visitors – be they young kids, teens, history buffs or toy soldier enthusiasts – navigate the collection.
“It’s kind of a fun little way that people can interact with some of the most famous moments in history,” she said.
“The soldiers themselves provide a chance to go into depth that we can’t do otherwise, and they’re fun.”
Toy soldiers in different countries reflect different cultural feelings about war, she said.
Burnside says the toy soldiers she grew up with in England were dull, mostly positioned on their bellies shooting or standing ready to shoot.
“The thing about American and German toy soldiers between the wars and in the second world war is that they showed regular people as soldiers, caught up in a war doing things,” she said.
She points to one on her own shelf, an Army cook making pancakes, and remembers another of an officer looking at a clipboard with concern.
“Most people have some kind of childhood experience with toy soldiers, whether it’s the cowboy that came free in the corn flakes package or it’s the brother or uncle who had a whole slew of them – which in my case, I was very jealous of,” she said, with a laugh.
The collection will be unveiled during a private event Wednesday.
It will open to the public Saturday as part of a special family event called “Toys, Trees and Traditions” from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., which also celebrates holiday traditions found throughout Louisville’s diverse communities.
Contact the Frazier Museum at 502-753-5663 or visit www.FrazierMuseum.org for more information.