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Pirated Betons

by Ron Steiner

I had been collecting toy soldiers for only a couple of years when Richard O'Brien's first Collecting Toy Soldiers book was published, in 1988. At the time, I had been concentrating on collecting metal figures, but occasionally I'd also acquire a Beton (Bergen Toy & Novelty Company) plastic figure. Because of the metal shortages, I accumulated quite a large Beton army throughout WWII, plus a fair number of cowboys and Indians.

In 1986, I still had a total of 51 survivors, but most of these were deteriorating or broken ó even though Beton advertised their product as "non-breakable"! When I discovered the Beton section in O'Brien's book, I was fascinated with the history of the company. I took special note of the fact that Charles Marcak, Beton's owner, had closed the company in 1958 after attending the New York Toy Fair and finding that the Japanese were "copying his toys" and selling them cheaper.

I had recently acquired a large batch of Betons and noticed that several of them looked different. I wondered if these figures could be the Japanese copies referred to by O'Brien. After a thorough study of the figures and comparison with the book, I found that I actually had three Plastic Toys Inc., eight Lido and one unidentified cowboy that I thought must be one of the Japanese copies. I was wrong! Now, after 20 years of collecting Betons and these "pirated" Beton copies, I've never been able to find a plastic Beton copy that I could definitely label a "Japanese copy." I eventually learned that my unidentified cowboy was made by the Ajax Plastic Corporation, a New York City firm. Ajax was the most prolific copier of poor Mr. Marcak's Beton line of figures.

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Reliable Plastics Company

Reliable was a Canadian business located in Toronto. It's possible that this earliest company to pirate Beton's soldiers may not have been a pirate at all! According to Richard O'Brien's 1997 Collecting American-Made Toy Soldiers, Edition No. 3, "It's possible Reliable leased rights from Beton, rather than pirating its figures outright, as Reliable did have close contact with such U.S. companies as Ideal." In any event, Reliable produced nice copies that were redesigned to better reflect Canadian uniforms.

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There are only five soldiers in Reliable's line, and they went through three configurations. The earliest were hard plastic and had separate rectangular bases, like Beton's, that were marked with an R and a P within a diamond, plus MADE IN CANADA. These figures were detail-painted and generally came in khaki or blue, although I do have one soldier in transparent orange. The second configuration is the same figure in hard plastic, unmarked, but with a wafer-thin, cast-on base. The third matches the second and came in soft plastic, with or without an embossed Reliable banner on the figure's back.

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Plastic Toys, Inc.

The soldiers produced by this Ohio company, owned by a former Bergen Toy & Novelty Company sales manager, are most often mistaken for early Betons. They are nearly exact copies, but they have round, integrally cast and unmarked bases. The line consisted of nine or possibly 10 soldiers that were originally detail-painted on a plastic that was more brown in color than Beton's khaki plastic. A page from a 1945 Plastic Toys catalogue originating in Cambridge, Ohio, is shown in O'Brien's 3rd edition. It pictures a line of nine toy soldiers that includes an Infantryman Charging Forward, but, to my knowledge, this figure has never turned up in any collection. I have a Plastic Toys catalogue (copyright 1945, after the company's move to Byesville, Ohio) that includes eight of the original line, replacing the Infantryman Charging Forward with a Bugler. Eventually, Plastic Toys discontinued painting their soldiers, cast them in many colors, and finally began producing them in soft plastic. The hardest figure to identify, especially in unpainted versions, is the Prone Machine Gunner because he has no telltale round base. I've found that the Plastic Toys figure has sprues on the heels and a full helmet rather than the dented helmet that's always on Beton's Prone Machine Gunner.

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Ajax Plastic Corporation

This company was the most blatant pirate of Beton's 1950s line of figures. Their figures are almost exact duplicates of Betons. In the case of the soldiers, Ajax didn't even bother to remove Beton's copyrighted intertwined B and T logo from the base. On page 334 of O'Brien's 3rd edition, a William Shaland Corporation catalogue is pictured. (Shaland was a toy jobber who influenced his son-in-law, Harry Sternberg, to produce toys under the Ajax name to be sold through Shaland.) This catalogue shows copies of Beton's railroad figures, cowboys and Indians, large and small riders, soldiers, policemen, fireman, and ballerina. Of these figures, I've been able to positively identify only Ajax's cowboys and Indians, small riders and soldiers. After an exhaustive study of Beton's railroad civilians and large riders, I've concluded that there are no variations in any of these figures that would distinguish them as Ajax copies. Possible exceptions might be in the three variations of the large officer rider, and variations in the two policemen and fireman, but none of these fits Ajax's style. There is a variation in Beton's ballerina concerning paint style and an ill-fitting peg that might possibly put it into the Ajax camp, but I'm inclined to dismiss that and consider it a Beton variation until further evidence comes in.

The first Beton figures copied by Ajax were the standing cowboys and Indians. There are three Indians and three cowboys that are painted similarly to Betons but, fortunately, they can be identified by the lack of markings on the base. Like the Beton originals, these Ajax figures are found in three versions: unpainted, with electroplate finishes, and in soft plastic. A practiced eye can identify most Ajax figures by the color of the plastic and the paint colors used.

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Ajax's small riders and horses followed a pattern similar to the standing cowboys and Indians. They were painted quite like the Betons and also came unpainted, electroplate finished, and in soft plastic. Neither the Beton nor the Ajax riders have markings. The two Ajax cowboys have large, 5/32-inch sprues on their backs, as opposed to the Beton figures, which either had no sprues or small sprues on their backs. The three Ajax Indian riders can be identified by the distinct nine-petalled medallions on their chests, while the Betons have either a sprue on the chest (early version with bow) or an indistinct six- or seven-petalled medallion. The later versions of all three Beton Indians have sprues at the tail of their headdresses. I recently made a surprising discovery with the small cadet rider. As far as I know, he's never shown up in an Ajax or Shaland catalogue, but an Ajax copy does exist. The difference is that the Ajax has a large sprue on his upper back, while the Betons have small sprues on the back at the waist. The bucking broncos are easily identified by the embossed AJAX U.S.A in the body cavity, plus two large, 3/16-inch sprue-type discs on the right neck and hip. The running horse is harder to identify, because it has only the embossed MADE IN U.S.A. in the body cavity, just as the Betons do. It does, however, have the same two 3/16-inch sprue-type discs on the right forequarter and haunch, similar to the Ajax bronco.

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The 10 soft plastic soldier copies that Ajax produced are actually better castings than those produced by Beton. These 10 are easily identified by the fact that Ajax removed the embossed Bergen Toy & Novelty Co. Inc. U.S.A from the circle in the middle of the base. Still, some collectors assume these figures are Betons because the intertwined B and T logo is still on the base, and the green-colored plastic is nearly the same. The soldier line was packaged and sold under the William Shaland name rather than Ajax.

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Lido Toy Corporation

This company, located in the Bronx, produced some nice copies of Beton's small cowboy and Indian riders, integrated them with Lido's own figures, and packaged them in some very attractive boxed sets. Although Lido copied the basic Beton figures, they incorporated subtle differences. One cowboy's lasso is slack and droops below the hand. Another cowboy's pistol points upward, and a third cowboy holds a rifle. The Indian with bow holds a much longer and narrower bow. Another Indian's spear has had the decorative feathers removed. The tomahawk was redesigned on the third Indian and moved away from the head. A fourth Indian, with rifle, was added to the line. The medallions on all the Indians' chests are slightly redesigned also. Like the Betons, all of Lido small riders are unmarked and have sprues in approximately the same locations. Both horses are readily identifiable, with an embossed LIDO U.S.A. marking inside the body cavity. Additionally, some of the running horses have several embossed Xs on the saddle blanket. Lido's copies came painted, unpainted, and in soft plastic.

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Archer Plastics

This company seems actually to have pirated their small riders from Lido rather than Beton. Of the cowboy riders, they produced one with a slack, drooping lasso, plus another with the lasso above the hand that's more like a Beton. The other two cowboys hold either a pistol pointing upward or a rifle in one hand. All four have sprues on their upper backs, while Lido's are located at the waist. The four Indian riders have the same weapons as Lido ó long bow, undecorated spear, tomahawk, and rifle. The sprues on these Indians are located at the tail of the headdress, exactly like the Lidos, making them extremely difficult to tell apart. However, the Archer Indianís rifle is attached at the leg; the Lido Indianís isnít. Both the bronco and running horse can be distinguished by the curlicues on the saddle blankets. Archer seems never to have painted their small riders, but they all come in hard and soft plastic. The soft plastic horses have an added support web within the body cavity.

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Plastic Copies by Unknown Manufacturers

A Canadian company has copied Beton's standing Indian chief and cowboy with hand on holster. Both have separate rectangular bases marked with an embossed logo of an M inside an arrowhead pointing downward. The words MADE IN CANADA are wrapped around one of the peg holes. I've also come across several unmarked pirated running horses that I've never been able to identify, but the one that I've pictured below has an embossed DOR, then a five-spoke wheel, then ROSE plus MADE IN ENGLAND ó all located in the body cavity. It also has Xs on the saddle blanket, which might make it a copy of the Lido horse with Xs, and it has sprues on both sides of the saddle. It's cast in soft plastic. No sooner had I written this than I discovered that the name of my horseís manufacturer was TUDOR ROSE. This English company made plastic toys during the 1950s that included futuristic space figures and accessories, trains, tea sets, and more. Iíll need to research further to determine if this company copied other Beton figures.

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Metal Copies by Unknown Manufacturers

The picture below shows three metal copies of Beton soldiers. These were cast in an unstable pot metal that has crazed and cracked over the years. The manufacturer is not known, but it's possible that these were produced in Japan. I doubt that these were the figures that Beton's owner Charles Marcak saw at the New York Toy Fair in 1958. Note that the charging soldier has lost his gas mask. The metal copy of Beton's Highwayman looks like the type of bronze casting that was mounted on souvenir ashtrays and such during the 1940s and 1950s.

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Coast Company

In 1995, I was in the bakery department of a Lucky grocery store when I spotted some "Betons" decorating a birthday cake. The girl behind the counter directed me to a local party shop, where I acquired some of these figures. The two small cowboy riders were in a KWIK-KIT cake decorating kit packaged under the company name of Coast, located in Venice, California, and produced in Hong Kong/China. They're pretty close to exact hard plastic Beton copies, with the cowboys marked CHINA on the back of the right leg and the horse marked CHINA in the cavity.

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European Copies

In 2001, I bought a batch of 30 "Betons" on eBay from a seller in Austria that intrigued me because they were all unpainted gray plastic. I had never seen any of the 1950s WWII uniformed figures in gray before. There was a good reason for that ó these figures all turned out to be fakes. Someone in Europe was casting excellent copies of Betons in both hard and soft plastic. I've heard from other collectors that they've been sold in both Germany and Great Britain. There are no markings on the 11 figures in the line. The Signaller has an extra diagonal line crossing the original line on the lower flag, but otherwise these copies are near perfect.

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The only other pirated Betons that I know about are the metal copies of the Highwayman and Cowboy with Lasso in a boxed set made in Occupied Japan. These are pictured in O'Brien's 3rd edition on page 686. I've seen only one of these sets, at a show back when I first started collecting. Although interesting, it certainly wasn't a priority, and it probably didn't fit into my budget either. I'll have to put it on my wish list one of these days!

Copyright 2008 Ron Steiner

 

 

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