In 1955, "Time" magazine declared Louis Marx the “Toy King” of the United States. That’s not surprising, considering it’s likely that every child—and parent—in the country had played with at least one of his toys at that point. Today, Louis Marx and Company is perhaps best known for its early wind-up tinplate toys, yo-yos, toy cars, HO and O scale train sets, and plastic playsets depicting everything from European battlefields to prehistoric dinosaur-filled landscapes. The company also made toy guns, dolls, doll houses, robots, and Big Wheels.
The first secret to his success was mass-producing high-quality toys and offering them at low prices. Competitors and critics mocked Marx toys as “cheap,” but they were simply “inexpensive.” The toys generally had uncomplicated designs, but sturdy, durable construction that lasted for years. And while Marx came up with quirky and creative playthings, his other big talent was marketing his products to a wide audience.
Marx started out as a toy salesman at Strauss Toy Company of New York, and then in 1919, he launched his own company with his brother, David. Their company didn’t have any factories when they started; they would simply contract out the production with established factories such as Strauss, C.G. Wood, Girard, and Carter, and then put the Marx branding on the toys, a circular logo with a big “X” behind “MAR.”
Then, in 1921, Marx rented factory space from Carter in Erie, Pennsylvania, and bought two dies from Strauss for an Alabama minstrel dancer and the Zippo climbing monkey. By the following year, these two tinplate clockwork toys had sold 8 million apiece, making the brothers millionaires. Marx found even more success when it began marketing its own whistling yo-yos, branded as Lumars. Within a decade, the company had sold 100 million of these whistling and non-whistling toys.
One key to Marx marketing was getting the low-cost toys in front of the public, through the Sears, Roebuck, & Co. and Montgomery Ward catalogs, and through distribution at chain stores like Woolworths. Early on, Marx developed a high-profile partnership with Disney, which proved lucrative, and created several toys based on popular comic-strip and radio-show characters like Popeye and Charlie McCarthy.
To make its popular wind-up toys—particularly vehicles ranging from carts to dirigibles—Marx would lithograph toy patterns onto large sheets of tinplated steel, which would then be die-cut, folded, and assembled. In order to keep production costs low, Marx would often repurpose dies, using the same model for several different toys. The Honeymoon Express, a wind-up train on a circular track with a plane circling above, became the Mickey Mouse Express and the Subway Express. The 1940 toy known as Tidy Tim Street Cleaner was originally Popeye pushing a barrel of spinach.
In the late '20s, Marx contracted with Girard Model Works to sell their Joy Line trains under the Marx brand. The business relationship lasted until the mid-’30s, when Marx acqui...
In the late '40s and early '50s, Marx began making the transition from die-cut tinplated steel to new, cheaper plastics. Because of this, the company’s old wind-up toys are treasured by toy fans and collectors today.
A particularly popular clockwork toy, Marx MerryMakers, features an elaborate scene of mice gathering around a piano to play music. A 1935 wind-up toy depicted a fireman gripping a ladder. When activated, the fireman, which was a separate piece, would actually move his legs to step up and down on the ladder. Some collectors will put two firemen on the ladder, but the toys were not sold this way.
Marx cars often featured unexpected and lively elements. Comic Car, a 1932 jalopy featuring four college boys, curved forward, stopped, and then backward in an arc. This car, like the 1940 Charlie McCarthy Buggy, had big rear wheels, a pattern that could also be used for a tractor. The 1932 Amos ‘n’ Andy Fresh Taxi would move forward, stop, and shake. Since these toys were mass-produced, the tin and its lithography has to be in top condition for the toy to have any value.
Sometimes Marx failures are the most treasured today. A 1936 tin train called Bunny Express, with a rabbit-shaped engine and open cars meant to pull candy, instantly flopped when it was released for the Easter season. Since few were made, collectors are always looking for this toy.
In the 1930s, Marx realized that World War II might lead to metal shortages, so the company began developing plastics that could be used to produce 100-piece playsets. These elaborate scenes, first issued in 1948, usually featured a structure like a fort or castle made out of lithographed tin, which formed the backdrops for scores of plastic figures in conflict, like cowboys and Indians or Union and Confederate soldiers.
Almost any fictional or historical scene you could imagine was created as a Marx playset. While they came stuffed to the gills with toys, these sets usually sold for $4-$7 apiece. Many were made based on popular TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Ben Hur,” or “The Untouchables." As space toys exploded in popularity, playsets with themes like moon base or Cape Canaveral were offered. The 1961 Prehistoric Playset, with its plastic dinosaurs, cavemen, trees, and rocks, is particularly rare now.
In 1964, Marx produced and distributed Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, a tremendously popular plastic 3-D game developed by the freelance toy design firm of Marvin Glass and Associates, which sold most of its innovative game ideas to Ideal. Five years later, Marx introduced its next big hit, a large plastic tricycle called Big Wheel, which was one of the top-selling toys of the '70s and has a place in the National Toy Hall of Fame.
In 1972, Marx, which was too slow to jump on the electronic-toy bandwagon, was purchased by Quaker Oats, and by 1975, its manufacturing facilities were closed. Marx assets have been purchased by various concerns, and some of its tin and plastic toys were reproduced in the 1980s.