Being a collector of Lord of the Rings "action" figures, I can understand the enthusiasm for spin-off merchandise. It dates back to the Regency period.
An exhibit of Regency toy theatre characters and items will tour several museums in the UK. What beautiful things!
William Palin, Assistant Curator, Sir John Soane's Museum (and son of Monty Python and travel documentarian, Michael Palin) discusses the background of these beautiful "toys" in this Guardian article.
"They were the invention of an extraordinary London shopkeeper, William West, who wore a paper hat of his own design and did a separate line in Bawdy Songster prints - pornography which he sold under the counter."
West toured London's flourishing theatres between 1811 and 1840, commissioning artists to draw the scenery and characters from 146 plays which he then reproduced in miniature.
Young customers poured into his shop to buy characters such as arch-criminal the Black Vulture or Black-Eyed Susan, the feisty farm girl invented by John Gay, author of the Beggars' Opera. "Then they went home and put on their own elaborate plays, often with accessories like gunpowder," said Mr Palin, whose father is the comedian and TV traveller Michael Palin. "One of the lasting favourites was The Miller and his Men, which ends dramatically with an entire windmill exploding."
Sir John Soane's Museum
Toy Theater at Kannik's Korner