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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood

Embrace your inner child on this website from the Victoria and Albert Museum, filled with high-quality images and i… [read review or visit site]

The Wheelmen

The Wheelmen

This elegant tribute to turn-of-the-century bicycling includes memorabilia, photographs, and an index of 3140 bicyc… [read review or visit site]

Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Marx Deluxe Auto Transport Car Hauler W/ 2 Cars & Ramps, All Original, Nice!!!Marx 1950s Raytheon Missile Test Center Tin Litho -- Nice ConditionVintage Marx Military Play Sets Camouflage Tent Poles-bars-eyeletsVintage Marx Military Play Sets Camouflage Tent Pole Top CapsVintage Marx Walt Disney "davy Crockett At The Alamo" Firing Black Cannon #3Marx O Gauge I-gn 54099 Missouri Pacific Lines Stock CarVintage Marx Walt Disney "davy Crockett At The Alamo" Firing Black Cannon #2Vintage Marx Walt Disney "davy Crockett At The Alamo" Firing Black Cannon #1Vintage 1970s Marx Johnny West Zeb Zachary FigureVintage Marx Military Play Sets Dark Green PaddlerMarx Revolutionary War Rev War Playset British FiguresVintage Marx Military Play Sets Tan Seated G.i.sCavalry Charge, Cts/marx Reissue Acw Confederate Cavalry Playset Figures/ HorsesVintage Marx O-gauge Signal 1950s Do Not Cross Tracks While Bell Is RingingMarx O Gauge Glen Dale Passenger Station W/ LuggageMarx O Gauge 5 Male Pedestrians Railroad Workers PeopleMarx O Gauge Erie 4528 Tractor Flat Car (no Tractors)Vintage 1970s Marx Johnny West FigurePlasticville & Marx O Gauge 18 Farm Animals & 13 Fence Pcs.Vintage Marx Ranch House Tin Plate Playset 99.9% Comeplete Accessories ExcellentVintage Marx O-gauge Automatic Signal 1950s1960s 1970 70s Unbroken Marx Western Weapons Black Gun Holster Vintage Part Lot26 Marx Fort Apache Playset Ladders Vintage Marx Military Play Sets Olive & Dark Green Seated U.s. SoldiersVintage Lot Of Toy Plastic Figures Playsets Marx ??????? Marx HorseMarx O Gauge New York Central System Nycs Crane CarMarx U.s. Army Soldier Toy With Accessories 5.5 Inches Tall Louis Marx & Co WwiiVintage 1970s Marx Johnny West Zeb Zachary FigureMarx Lido Bergen Toy West Point Cadets And HorsesVintage Marx Caveman & AnimalsVintage Marx Toy TruckVintage 1950's Marx Electric Train Set W/ Union Pacific New York Central Cars Vintage 1970s Marx Johnny West Zeb Zachary FigureFabulous Marx Prewar 12 Piece Army Supply Train Setboxed # 5950 1940 Orig. WowLot Of Marx Army Supply Train 500 O Scale With Tracks. See Details.Conte Stamford Bridge Marx Style Playset Mib Ring-a-ling Circus, Marx Windup, 1930sMarx Vintage G-man Pursuit Toy Car 1930's Wind UpColonel Hap Hazard 1960’s Robot Toy In Original Box – Marx Toys1968 Marx Munchieville Plantation Miniature Playset Never Opened Org Parts BagsMarx Germans: Cts Eighteen Tanks 'battle Of The Bulge' Playset.(lot #953) Vintage Marx Tin Toy Wind-up King Kong Gorilla Working1930s Marx Tin Litho Wind-up Merrymakers Mouse Band! Working!Vintage Tin Barney Rubble Dino Flintstone Linemar Marx Wind Up Dinosaur Toy BoxRare Vintage Marx Cadillac Lasalle Convertable Coupe Balloon Car Sedan WyandotteVintage Joe Penner, "wanna Buy A Duck' Wind-up Toy, Marx 19301960s Marx A Copter Sikorsky Helicopter Set Stunning Mint Unused In The BoxMarx Trains Beautiful 333 Smoking Locomotive & Sf Tender Exc! Rare New Marx Birthday Cars Set In Box 11 Pieces Wow!! Boxcars Reduced Price!Vintage 1939 Marx Tin Grand Central Station Electric Lighted Rr Train Depot Rare Vintage Marx Wagon Train Rustic Red Covered Wagon Canopy-l@@k!!!Vintage Antique Tin Wind Up King Kong MarxVintage 1940's Marx Popeye The Pilot Tin Windup Toy Plane No Reserve (dakotapaulMarx Union Pacific M10000 Train Set With Original Box Works PerfectlyVtg 1960s Marx Toy Burp Gun #2212 Pull Back Bolt Action ~ Military ~ Nos/moc1950's Marx Wind Up & Tin Toys The Magic Barn And Tractor Set With BoxMarx Johnny West Series Jay West Mint In Box (factory Sealed)Vintage Tin Linemar Marx Chein Popeye Punching Bag Boxer Boxing Wind Up ToyMarx Army Supply Train