The first American plastic toy soldiers were made by Beton (Bergen Toy & Novelty Co.) in 1938. Beton also acquired the molds of another pre-war plastic figure company, Universal Plastics with their figures remaining for sale when lead toy production was stopped in 1942. The Beton figures were painted like metal figures and sold the same as their metal brethren; individually or in a boxed set of around seven figures. Following World War II, Beton modified their figures in an attempt to change the World War I type helmet into the World War II one.
Following World War II, plastic manufacture was seen as an industry with growth potential with many old and new companies making plastic figures that were widely available in the United States. Army men following the war were sold unpainted, usually in a green colour corresponding to United States Army uniforms in World War II. Plastic figures were sold en masse in clear plastic bags with an illustrated header card in different sizes and prices since the early 1950s.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Louis Marx and Company sold boxed sets of figures and accessories called playsets, such as "US Army Training Center" and the later "Battleground" sets. A rival manufacturer, the MPC (Multiple Plastics Corporation) also sold plastic figures in various colours with different separate accessories, so the same figures could be kitted out as soldiers (green), farmers, pioneers or cowboys (brown), policemen (blue), ski troopers (white) spacemen (various colors), or American Civil War soldiers in Blue and Gray.
The economy of plastic sold in bulk, popularity of army men, and competition with manufacturers led to army men being sold in large bags by Marx and MPC for as little as a penny a piece in the mid 1960s. During this time, Marx gave the American army men actual enemy soldiers to fight such as German soldiers (molded in grey) in their 1962 "Army Combat" set and Japanese enemies (molded in yellow) in their "Iwo Jima" set that was released in 1963. In 1965, a "D-Day" Marx set featured Allies such as French (horizon blue), British (khaki), and Russians. One of their last and largest playsets was the multi-level "Fortress Navarone" mountain set based on The Guns of Navarone, which was available in the 1970s and pitted World War II Americans against Germans.
During the Vietnam War, sales and availability of military toys began to decline alongside the unpopularity of the war and the higher prices of plastic from the 1973 oil crisis.
Today most army men are made inexpensively in China and do not include the extensive accessories that were common in Marx playsets. They are also smaller on average, often not much more than 2.5 cm (one inch) high. Most of these figures are generic imitations of model figure sets from such companies as Airfix and Matchbox. They vary widely in quality.
In addition to army men, other inexpensive, plastic toy figures are also commonly available. Toy cowboys and Indians, farm sets, spacemen, knights, dinosaurs, firemen, police officers and other playsets are often sold alongside army men.
What's it worth? Take a look at this Army Men price guide: sold listings for a value indication.