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 Army Military Set 5926g In Original Box Excellent-500,851m,572st,572,558mMarx Trains Prewar Commodore Vanderbilt Engine And 5 Illuminated Passenger Cars Marx Main Street 1920’s Tin Windup Litho Toy Original Box WorksMarx Frankenstein Monster Robot Universal Japan Black Shoes Battery Op VintageRare Captain America Tricycle By Marx Marvel Wind Up Tin Toy Works1950s Marx Lumar Large 20 Inch Coca Cola Delivery Truck Mint Unused In The BoxMarx Pre-war Mercury New York Central Passenger TrainMarx Vintage Tin Toy, "home Town" Series, "f. W. Woolworth" Store 1920's-30's1946 Vintage Marx Walt Disney Donald Duck Duet With Goofy Tin Wind-up Toy30s Marx Freight/train Staion Hand Truck Dolly W/trunk & Luggage Tin OriginalMarx / Gray Mercury / New York Central / Five Piece Train / ArticulatedMarx Giant Blue And Gray Civil War Battle Set In Original BoxVintage Original Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Popeye Express Toy W/ Parrot 1930'sOld Tin Marx Sparking Tank *vintage Wind-up Army Military Toy Working ConditionSuperman Tips Over Windup Tank, Marx, 19401960's Marx Playset Boxed Operation Moon Base Aliens Astronauts SpacemenMarx O Gauge Diesel Allstate Electric Train Set Sears In Original Box 9621Antique Marx Litho Amos N Andy Character Fresh Air Taxi Tin Automobile ToyMarx Superman Tank With Box (power Does Not Work)Marx Vintage "home Town" Series, Drug Store, Tin Toy, 1920's-30'sMarx Super Circus Boxed 50s Set1960 Marx Farm Tin Barn PlaysetMarx Vintage Tin Toy, "home Town" Series, Fire House 1920's-30's, Firemen, CarMarx Flintstone Hunting Party Dinosaur SetRare Vtg 1930's 40's Marx #12 Indy Race Car Windup Tin Litho W/ Tin Driver 16"6 Piece Marx O Scale Train Set In Original Box - 2 W/ Loads (l62 Vintage Marx O Gauge No.21 Santa Fe Aa Unit Diesel Engine SetRare 1950's Marx Roy Rogers Western Town And Wells Fargo Townfront-tin Litho Marx Linemar Tin Friction 1956 Studebaker Allied Van Truck 13" Excellent CondVintage Marx Rifleman Ranch Playset 3997: Box, Character Figures, Cabins More!Marx Penn Central 4000 Diesel Aa-units, Look To Be Complete & Correct. SuperMarx, Chaparral 2c, Vintage 1/24 Scale Slot Car, Custom DetailingMammy's Boy Walker, Marx Windup, 1920s, Face Changes ExpressionsMarx-man Ricochet Carbine Cap Gun With Original Box & Play Bullets, 1955-60Vintage 1967 Marx 54mm Aqua Blue General Custer FigureVintage Marx Battleground Playset Box # 4756 Full Wwii Stuff Rare 1950's Marx Roy Rogers Mineral City Western Town Playset And Figures-nice Marx Pre-war (1937-50) Mercury Train Set- Locomotive & 6 CarsVintage Metal 1930's Marx Roadside Rest Service Station And Bonus Vintage TruckVintage Marx Toys Storm Cloud Geronimos Horse Pinto Johnny West SeriesVintage Marx Union Pacific Train Set ( Neon Orange With Box )Butter And Egg Man With Duck, Marx Windup, 1930sTin Pressed Steel 1950's Auto Car Carrier Truck W Two Cars Marx? Marx Pinocchio The Acrobat Disney Wind Up Tin Toy Vintage Works!Rare Vintage Marx Tin Friction Us Army Truck F.63 With CanopyVtg Marx 1950s Indy Race Car Tin Litho Wind Up Toy W/ Driver 13" *good Shape* Huge Train Lot Lionel, Marx, American Flyer 48 Pieces Vintage Marx Joe Penner And Goo Goo Duck "wanna Buy A Duck" Tin Wind-up Toy Vintage 1960's**rare** Marx Tin Litho Wind Up Moon Creature. Atomic Robot. WorksVintage Marx Johnny West Storm Cloud Pinto Horse Large 13" Tall Toy Western1940s Marx Magnetic Pressed Steel Crane Toy TruckLouis Marx & Co. Tin Racing Cars - Set Of 3 W/ Original Box!!!Vintage Marx Tin Western Town Street Scene. Very Nice!Roy Rogers Stage Coach VintageMarx Hess 1964 B-mack Rare Travelers Tanker Truck1950s Marx Prototype Forbidden Planet Play Set Model Building & Ray Gun WeaponsVintage Marx Batman Pinball Game 1966 Good ConditionHarold Lloyd Film Comedian Walks With Cane, Marx Windup, 1930sMarx Pre War 1938 Train Set ~ No. 391 Engine "stream Line Coast To Coast" 50s Marx Line Mar Farm Playset Hay Elevator Tin Old Factory Stock Mib Original