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]

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Lot Of 9 - Vintage Marx Red Mercury Battery Op Electric Train Set #2360Marx Comanche Pass-very Nice Condition-with Box-all OriginalMarx Superman Rollover Plane 1940'sMarx Popeye The Pilot Wind Up Tin PlaneRare Vintage Marx Miniature Custer's Last Stand Playset In Original BoxMarx 54mm The Rebel Johnny Yuma Playset Character Western Town Cowboy PlasticLot Of 8 - Marx Pullman O Gauge Train Passenger Car Red Vintage AntiqueVintage Marx Battery Operated Haunted House Tin ToyMarx 1950's Roy Rogers Mineral City Tin Litho ToyMarx Moon Base Play Set With Original BoxVintage Marx Speed King Tin Litho Wind-up Toy Race Car1910 Louis Marx Dapper Dan Tap Dancing Early Jigger Tin Wind Up Toy Green JacketMarx Big Bruiser Tow Truck With Original Box And More!Marx Prewar 500 Army Supply Train 1960's Marx Train Set With #1829 Engine No ReserveMarx 1829 Hudson Steam Engine OnlyMarx B-58 Hustler Airplane Vintage Tin ToyMarx Trains New York Central O Gauge Diesel Engine No 4000, Runs Great, NoreservAntique Vintage Marx Wind-up Tin Toy Looping Plane 1940's Wwii Us Flag WorksVintage Marx Western Town Buildings Town + Wells Fargo StableMarx 1960's Flintstones Hunting Party Playset, Extremely Rare, Fred, Barney, Box1950s Marx Linemar Flintstones Dino Riding Tricycle Tin Celluloid Wind Up Toy 1939 Louis Marx Walking Amos N Andy Walker Tin Litho Windup Toy1927 Louis Marx & Co 1927 Buck Rogers Tin Space Ship Antique Vintage Old MetalVintage Marx 3-piece M-10000 Streamliner Tin Wind-up Union Pacific Train & TracOld Tin Marx M10003 Up Train *vintage Wind-up ToyMarx Trains O 1829 Hudson Runs Fine More Available In My Other AuctionsVintage 1940's Marx Diesel Type Electric Train Original Box Super ConditionVintage Tin Louis Marx Army Toy War Tank Ww1 WwiLot Of 8 Piece Marx M10005 Green Train Set Engine And Cars Union Pacific VintageVintage Rare Linemar Marx Donald Duck Walt Disney Wind Up Gym Toys AcrobatNew In Box 50's Marx Lumar Utility Service Tin Toy Truck No ReserveMarx Invasion Day Miniature Play Set - Handpainted - Hong Kong - 1964Vintage Marx Tin Toy Barn Farm Playset Play Set BuildingsScarce Pre War Marx Streamliner Train SetLot 13 Vintage Model Train Signal Lights Signs O Scale Crossing Wholesale Marx1930's Marx Super Deluxe Coupe W/ Electromagnetic MotorVintage 1930’s Marx Toy Deco Airflow Fire Chief Car Pull Toy With Ding-dong BellMarx Original Vintage Battleground Playset Accessories Wonderful Old Original 14" Long Tin Windup Wwii Airplane Bomber By Marx C.1940'sVintage 1960's Louis Marx Toy Co. Plastic Batmobile Riding Car For ChildrenFlintstone On Dino Marx Vintage Battery Operated Toy JapanVintage 1977 Marx Play Set Battle Of Navarone, Mountain + Accessories + Box FaceVintage Walt Disney Marx Davy Crockett The Alamo Tin Set 1950's Extra PiecesMarx Canadian Pacific New York Central Wrecker Flat Car Dump Truck TankerMarx O27 Gauge Wabash Rear Passenger Car Prototype /car #2 / Hand Painted1949 Very Nice Dick Tracy 1949 Marx Wind Up Tin Toy CarVintage 1950s Marx Jail-side Western Town Playset Tin Streetfront Building NrMarx 1957 1st Series Prehistoric Times Playset - Rare Color Variations - Nr!Marx Nyc New York Central O Gauge Postwar #4000 Aa Diesels Vintage Marx (mar) Toys Tin Wind Up Bomber Airplane W/sparking Machine GunsLarge Lot Of 72 Vintage 1960s Marx Army Men - Us, Germans Plus 56 Aip,bmc,mpcMarx Rock Island 799 Engine Locomotive Train VintageMarx Toy Speedy Boy Motorcycle With Electric LightsVintage Marx Lumar Van Lines Studebaker Toy Delivery Truck2-marx Allstate Tow Trucks..made For SearsMarx Alamo #3943, The John Wayne SetMarx Toy Motorcycle Red UniformRare Vintage Wind-up Marx Flintstones Rollover TankVintage Rare Archer Space Patrol Spacemen Figures Accessories Marx Hard Plastic