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Luigi Toiati illustration of penguin, polar bear and explorer playing cards

Sixty years ago, excitement focused on a leap into Space, a journey to the moon, and then stepping out for a few brief moments before returning home. One hundred years earlier, like our “space race”, the world’s imagination had been captured by other scientific journeys. The most dramatic was probably the race to the Poles. The history of exploration of the Poles involved both competition and scientific investigation. One thread was the search for a sea route across the far North Atlantic. Another was to determine if the Poles were on land or ice. Third, and the most dramatic, adventurous individuals and their countries wanted to be the first to reach the Poles.

The 1600s started three centuries of exploration for a northwest or northeast passage through the Arctic as a route to Asia. The process encouraged the mapping of Greenland and exploration of Arctic regions by ship and land. Between 1850 and 1930 there were dozens of explorations sponsored by governments and individuals. This article looks at the most important and how they were presented in German made lead figures for children’s play.

In the mid-19th century there were two north polar expeditions led by Carl Koldewey. One was in 1868 exploring the eastern coast of Greenland; the other was a year later. In 1869 Koldewey’s ship Germania wintered at Sabine Island. During the fall and spring the crew made a number of sled trips to explore islands in the region. In July 1870 Germania continued exploration of the northeast Greenland coast. Due to engine failure, the Germania turned south and arrived in Bremerhaven, Germany in July 1870.

Their supply ship, Hansa, had been separated from Germania in the fog in September of 1869; Hansa became stuck in pack ice and was slowly crushed; its crew survived after finding shelter in a Moravian mission; they were home by September, 1870. Many expeditions that followed experienced the same problem of their ship being crushed by ice, and survived only by good luck. It would not be long, however, until toy makers began aiding children’s imaginations in recreating these stories.

1892-93 Erich von Drygalski
Perhaps the earliest Heyde boxed set of Arctic exploration is in Markus Grein’s collection. The set may have been inspired by the infamous sinking of the Hansa or the Drygalski expedition to Greenland. The set contains figures on wire skis, precursors of the flat metal skis in later sets. Included in the set is a three-masted ship with a smokestack; the icebound toy ship was cradled by pieces of metal representing the slab ice seen trapping ships in paintings of the time. Two icebergs were also made from cut tin rather than the papier mâché used in Heyde’s later sets. Contents include a small open boat pulled by three men. All figures are dressed in the same canvas-looking, brown clothes as in some later sets. There are also bits of imitation green bushes in the box. Interesting is a unique sled pulled by a reindeer; this transport is still used in northern Scandinavia. All this could suggest a Greenland connection. Perhaps the Heyde set’s best link to the Drygalski expedition is that the icebound ship flies a German tri-color flag.

1893-95 Fridtjof Nansen
In 1879 James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, made front page news of Stanley’s search of Africa for Livingstone. Hoping for another triumph, he sponsored a search for the North Pole by the ship Jeannette. Ice wrecked the ship, but the idea inspired Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen. He speculated a ship built with a round hull to withstand the pressures of the ice might take advantage of the slow flow and be dragged to the Pole. This was the dream of this scientist-hero having just skied across Greenland in In 1893 his specially designed, three masted, steam powered Fram was ready. She departed on June 24, 1893; but by September the Fram was locked in the ice. A year later, having drifted only 300 miles, they calculated that the ice flow would not carry them to the Pole.

So, rejecting their first method, in March 1895, Nansen and Frederick Johansen set off another attempt for the Pole with dogs, sleds and two kayaks. The kayaks would be used to cross open water as they anticipated broken ice. Again, they came within 240 miles of the Pole when conditions forced them back. They ate their dogs and a bear to stay alive. After more than a year of suffering, by June 1896, they stumbled into the English base at Cape Flora. Ironically, finally free from the ice, their ship Fram also returned. All were treated as heroes. Their story encouraged others to try for the Pole.

Haffner made a very impressive boxed diorama; it is clearly labeled the Nansen expedition. It included semi-round vignettes directly from the expedition report including attack by a polar bear, a hut, canoe, sleds even walrus, and, of course, their Norwegian flag.

Heyde catalogues simply listed their sets as North Pole or South Pole. Thus, their response to the Nansen expedition may simply have been an unnamed set that included a ship flying a Norwegian flag, plus dog sleds, a map and compass table, a cooking fire, men on skis and possibly a polar bear attack. These pieces appear in collections, but without any box identification.

1909 Robert E. Peary and Frederick Cook
In the following thirty years there were three dozen unsuccessful North Polar expeditions, but none compared in popular excitement with the rivalry of Americans Robert Peary and Frederick Cook. Peary organized eight missions between 1886 and 1908. In 1908 he finally sailed on the ship Roosevelt to conquer the North Pole. It is said that he dreamed of becoming another Christopher Columbus. On March 9, 1909 he and five companions left with their dog sleds from Cape Columbia, Greenland. He claimed that on April 6, 1909 he had reached the North Pole. On April 27, he was back in triumph on the Roosevelt. Some, however, found his speed hard to believe.

In a challenge, Frederick Cook claimed that he had reached the Pole on April 21, 1908, the year before Peary. America went wild! This was encouraged by competitive, sensationalist New York newspapers, The Herald Tribune was for Cook and the New York Times for Peary. Strangely, neither Cook nor Peary had managed to record specific measurements to prove their case. A French publication illustrated the conflict picturing a Peary-Cook wrestling match. Antarctic penguins were somehow shown as their North Pole audience! Ultimately, the U.S. Senate voted to resolve the conflict in Peary’s favor. Apparently despite the notoriety, no figures related directly to the expedition.

The Antarctic and the South Pole

1908 Ernest Shackleton
Perhaps it is not surprising that after this comic and controversial end to the race to the North Pole, world attention would shift south. Probably the most important of the attempts to reach the South Pole was made by Ernest Shackleton of England. He made two dramatic, not comic attempts. His first was from the small ship Nimrod. After a year in preparation at Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound, in January 1908 he made his planned polar attempt. He used both Manchurian ponies and sled dogs for his 72-day trek to the Pole. The ponies and dogs died; the men became exhausted. To survive, the team turned back 97 miles from his goal. After his fifty-day return, Shackleton burned his hut to signal his location; by good luck he and the Nimrod reunited. In June 1909, Shackleton arrived back in England as a hero despite having failed to reach the Pole. A toy maker commemorated this achievement; their set included ponies, dogs, men, the Nimrod, and Shackleton giving a victory wave. At first glance the figures depicting his success look like Heyde production; however, there may be controversy. Kneeling figures and some walking ones are not on bases as are identical Heyde figures in numerous other sets. In this group the most famous figure of Shackleton waving his hat is on a square base. In other Heyde sets the figure appears without a base. Even more striking, the ship Nimrod is totally unlike any of Heyde’s ships in their Arctic sets. All of this could mean that the Nimrod scene was created by a collector, not the Heyde factory. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful set suggesting the beginning of his attempt at the pole.

Shackleton’s second attempt at the Pole raised him to an almost mythological status. The voyage of his appropriately named ship Endurance was chronicled by his photographer Frank Hurley. On January 10,1915, The Endurance became icebound; by October she was crushed and sank. Then the hero’s journey began. The crew escaped in three lifeboats. Five Shackleton’s second attempt at the Pole raised him to an almost mythological status. The voyage of his appropriately named ship Endurance was chronicled by his photographer Frank Hurley. On January 10,1915, The Endurance became icebound; by October she was crushed and sank. Then the hero’s journey began. The crew escaped in three lifeboats. Five days later they reached Elephant Island. Soon Shackleton and five men set out for help on a stormy, 800 mile journey to South Georgia Island. Miraculously, they survived and after four months of efforts by Shackleton the rest of the crew were also rescued. There are at least two, three-masted Heyde ships that might be the Endurance; one flies a British flag. If correctly part of a set, can you imagine what other figures might have come with an Endurance set?

Roald Amundsen and Robert Scott
Further competition to first reach the South Pole strangely links to the North Pole competition. Roald Amundsen had been planning his own attempt to be the first at the North Pole. When he heard of the Peary-Cook fight he postponed further Arctic exploration. Then Amundsen set off for the Antarctic to compete with Robert Scott for first at that Pole.

Amundsen reached Antarctica on January 14, 1911. In March he set up supply stops for his route to the South Pole. On October 20 he and four skilled companions began their trek, averaging thirteen miles a day; dogs pulled their sleds. On December 14th, 1911 they reached the Pole. After three days there, they left supplies and a note for Scott; they knew Scott was on his way to the Pole. After ninety-six days, on January 25,1912, Amundsen was back in triumph at base camp. It is not surprising that the greatest toy commemorating the event is a board game, loved by the European public, and endorsed by Amundsen himself. Robert Scott’s plan for the Pole was an enormous undertaking of fifty men, ponies, dogs and two motor sleds. In the end all failed him. Scott reached the Pole on January 16, 1912. He wrote: “The worst has happened… the Norwegians…are first at the Pole.” Then Scott and his four companions began their harrowing return; no one survived. A search party found his body and journal the following November.

Heyde did not commemorate either Amundsen’s joyous or Scott’s tragic news from the Pole.

Richard Byrd’s Little America
Perhaps Heyde’s finest South Pole set is Richard Byrd’s Little America, of 1928-30. This set was featured in a previous article in this magazine by Harry Kemp (Winter, 2023). In 1928 Richard Byrd’s first of five Antarctic expeditions was established on the Ross Ice Shelf. Byrd’s goal was scientific research, but also to fly over the South Pole as he had done with the North. Their support ship was the City of New York. For exploration Byrd had three aircraft. The largest was a Fokker tri-motor named for his pilot friend, Floyd Bennett; two others were smaller single engine planes. Byrd’s Little America was a great success. To increase publicity, the lead-up included a competition for a Boy Scout to join the expedition. The winner was a 19-yearold Eagle Scout named Paul Siple, who went on two of Byrd’s Antarctic missions. (Paul was not represented in the set, however.) The Heyde figure previously representing a waving Shackleton was used as Richard Byrd, with a U.S. flag in his hand.

Many of the set’s figures wore heavy white clothing. There was a tin building with a Little America banner across it; it was made in two sizes. Dog sleds and penguins, as in the Shackleton set, were in this Byrd “super set”. A radio operator, a pole for signal flags, a red rescue tent and even a searchlight appeared. His supply ship New York steamed between icebergs. Most of all, Byrd’s airplane was there, but it was not the tri-motor that made the real Pole crossing on November 28, 1929. Perhaps for Heyde’s economic reasons, the plane was the same one used in Heyde’s airport sets with skis substituted for wheels. One “display set” included two planes, one on skis another with wheels; typically, only one with skis was included in the set. The airplane in Heyde’s Byrd set was crafted with a spindle above the wing so that the airplane could slide along a wire; this allowed the toy in play to simulate flight.

Beyond the toy shelf, Richard Byrd’s successes at “Little America” were chronicled in film, broadcast on radio, and played in board games. Scientifically, it opened the door to permanent exploration on Antarctica. In should be noted that although Byrd opened the door to exploration by flight, it did not end the danger and tragedy. There were two unsuccessful Italian Zeppelin flights toward the North Pole in 1926. Both the Norge and the Italia ended in tragedies trying to land at the North Pole. Finally, in 1948 a Russian team landed their airplane at the North Pole and claimed the right to have officially walked at the Pole.

Sets by other manufacturers
Before WWII, European composition figure makers Pfeiffer, Tipple-Topple and Elastolin made Eskimo figures. In the 1950s and 60s, Arctic ski troopers were produced in metal by Britains Ltd., American Dimestore companies, and European composition figure makers. The Winter 2000 issue of Old Toy Soldier focused primarily on winter articles. Allen Hickling, the toy castle expert wrote “Snow Castles”, picturing examples from the great European makers. Don Pielin and Ron Hillman explored American Dimestore winter troops in metal and paper. In the Christmas spirit, OTS reprinted a December,1954 article from the North London Press on Britains factory production.

Our article Arctic Dreams (OTSN, Volume: 23 #4) was a brief survey of winter figures from Heyde to Mignot. Special attention was given to Timpo’s dog sled team and copies of it. Emphasis was on photos of figures from Authenticast, Taylor & Barrett, Japanese, and French firms plus Castresana of Spain. In that article little attention was given to the history of Polar exploration. Soon plastic figures dominated the market. Britains Herald, for example, responded to the trends with a see-through box containing a spectacular dog sled team loaded with accessories.

Dominating the USA toy market were Marx Playsets. Notably, these imitated the elements that had been defined thirty years earlier in Heyde’s “super sets”. As an example, in 1958 Marx introduced their Arctic Explorer Playset. It included a tin building, four plastic igloos, three-dozen highly detailed plastic explorers and Eskimos, dog sleds, Kayaks, and a play mat. Animals mixed polar bears and penguins, walrus and seals to allow for Arctic and Antarctic settings.

Today, we all know, we’ll get old figures at a few shows and auctions; maybe find a good piece at a local “flea market” or on Ebay. For a child nowadays, though, there aren’t many toy shops selling toys that teach history at toy shop prices.


Gisbert Freber: Roald Amundsen game, advertising images
Markus Grein: photos of various sets and figures
Steven Sommers: historical research
Alfred Sulzer: Haffner Nansen boxed set photo

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