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    

Large Antique~ Pressed Steel Toy Car~ Marx / Wyandotte ?~project NrMarx Frankenstein With Box Early 60's Tin Battery Operated Marx Army Supply Train W/ 6 Cars In Very Good ConditionOld Marx Tin Wind-up Popeye Express With Suitcase And Stationary Parrot Toy Nr !Old Marx 0 Train Set Commodore Vanderbilt Nyc Wrecker 550 555 556 552 553 NiceMarx Acme Markets Truck Tractor Trailer With Box LookOld Tin Marx Tidy Tim *vintage Wind-up Toy1930's Marx Tin Gas Station Pumps, Lithographed, Lights Work.Vintage Marx Tin Litho Wwii Army Jumpin Jeep Key Wind Wind-up Toy Car & BoxMarx Amos & Andy Fresh Air Taxicab-all Original-runs But Needs Cleaning, Etc.Rare 1938 Marx's Motorcycle Cop And Car Speedway Single Track In Original BoxVintage Marx Trans Atlantic Zeppelin Blimp Propeller Hanging Wind Up Old Tin Toy30's Marx Streamlined Coupe "drive~ur~self" Tin Litho Wind Up Toy Car No ReserveMarx 1964 Daniel Boone Wilderness Scout PlaysetMarx Western Town Jail General Store Vintage Toy Play Set W/ Box Lantern Hook + Army Flat With Army Plane W/canopyMarx Military Army Train Set #52975Marx 333 Locomotive With Coal Car Tender New York Central1927 Marx Rare Buck Rogers Rocket Police Patrol Tin Litho Wind Up Toy 12" Long!Vintage 1950's Marx "tom Corbett" Space Cadet Polaris Sparkling Tin Rocket ShipMarx Daktari Playset # 3720 In The Box & Loaded !Ltd Toy Stamp & 1939 Louis Marx Porky Pig Tin Litho Wind-up Toy WorksVintage O Scale Marx 4-6-2 Steam Locomotive #333 ~for Parts Or RestorationPrototype Pennsylvania Model 1523 Tender From 1950Working Marx Main Street Wind Up Lithograph Tin ToyMarx Army Ordnance Car With Original Load,exc, 4 WheelsVintage Marx - Mares Laig Dead Or Alive Cap Gun - Large Size 13 1/2"Marx Airplane Plane Rollover Tin Wind-up Toy Condition! Vintage AntiqueMarx Johnny West Jwa Jed Gibson With Box/accessoriesPrototype Marlines Model 733 Caboose From 1950Marx St. Paul Pacific Wells Fargo Engine Coal Passenger Baggage Car VintageLinemar Atomic Reactor 1950s Marx Steam Engine Japan Battery Operated Tin Toy1960's Remco Roman Gallant Gladiator Warship Playset Catapult Soldiers MarxMarx #5 Army Tank On 4 Wheel Flat, RunsEarly Marx Studebaker U.s. Army Machine Gun Truck 30's Nice V Rare 100% Original2 Marx Army Train Cars 552m And 572aa Vg 1930s-40s Era2 Marx O Scale #403 Low Dwarf Signals Flashing Toy Plastic Machine Gun-marx-1950s-orig. Box-asx Army Rocket Launcher With RocketsMarx Blue Airplane Load For Flat Car Marx 1960 #3543 Series 2000 John Wayne The Alamo Playset 212 Pieces W/box !!!Flash Gordon Arresting Ray Gun Marx Tin Toy PistolPrototype Marlines Model 1527 Boxcar From 1950Marx Army Twin Tank Car, ExcMarx O Gauge Union Pacific M10000 8 Cars Tracks, Marx Transformer Tan And Red Marx Toys Ranch House Old Toy Building Vintage Tin House 1940 Marx Tin Superman Roll Over Airplane Toy. + Marx Mar Toys Tin Wind Up Rol++nos? Late 1950's Early 1960's Marx "newberry's" Pressed Steel Delivery Truck++Marx Johnny West Jwa Jay West "unopened" Box/accMarx Yellow Airplane Load For Flat Car Marx Prewar No 1615 Dumping Unit And A No. 567 Side Dump Car. 1930s1971 Marx Boxed Botw Johnny West / Thunderbolt Combo Mail Order Litho BoxMarx Linemar Litho New York Railroad Crossing Sign-crane-train Station Track SetMarx O Scale Union Pacific Engine With Caboose Vintage Toy Hobby Railroad TrainMarx M 10005 Train Set With Box Very Clean Set% Toy Stamp & 1980's Marx Toys Navarone Mountain Battle Ground Play Set In BoxOld Marx Train Engine Lot Rock Island 99 Dummy Car Vintage O Gauge Set Of 3Marx Commodore Vanderbilt Train Set*rare Louis Marx Japan African Drummer Windup Tin *free Ship*Vintage Marx Woolworth's Toy Truck Private Label Attic Find Barn Find