|Industry||Toys and hobbies|
|Fate||Sold 1972, Liquidation 1980|
|Successor||Quaker Oats, Dunbee-Combex-Marx|
|Headquarters||New York, New York|
|Louis Marx, Founder, David Marx, Co-founder|
|Products||Lithographed tinplate, plastics, wood products|
Louis Marx and Company was an American toy manufacturer in business from 1919 to 1980. Its products were often imprinted with the slogan, «One of the many Marx toys, have you all of them?» Arguably, Marx was the most well-known toy company through the late mid-20th century.
The Marx logo was the letters «MAR» in a circle with a large X through it, resembling a railroad crossing sign (Richardson & Richardson 1999, p. 66). As the X sometimes goes unseen, Marx toys were, and are still today, often misidentified as «Mar» toys. Reputedly, because of this name confusion, the Italian diecast toy company Martoys, after two years of production, changed its name to Bburago in 1976. Although the Marx name is now largely forgotten except by toy collectors, several of the products that the company developed remain strong icons in popular culture, including Rock’em Sock’em Robots, introduced in 1964, and its best-selling sporty Big Wheel tricycle, one of the most popular toys of the 1970s. In fact, the Big Wheel, which was introduced in 1969, is enshrined in the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Marx’s toys included tinplate buildings, tin toys, toy soldiers, playsets, toy dinosaurs, mechanical toys, toy guns, action figures, dolls, dollhouses, toy cars and trucks, and HO scale and O scale trains. Marx also made several models of typewriters for children. Marx’s less expensive toys were extremely common in dime stores, and its larger, costlier toys were staples for catalog and department store retailers such as Eaton’s, Gamages, Sears, W.T. Grant, Montgomery Ward, J. C. Penney and Spiegel especially around Christmas. In pre WWII America, it was common for Kresge’s and Woolworth’s to place yearly orders for at least one million dollars each with Marx (Fortune Magazine1946).
Founded in August 1919 in New York City by Louis Marx and his brother David, the company’s basic aim was to «give the customer more toy for less money,» and stressed that «quality is not negotiable» – two values that made the company highly successful. Initially, after working for Ferdinand Strauss, Marx, born in 1894, was a distributor with no products or manufacturing capacity (King 1986, p. 188; Richardson & Richardson 1999, p. 42). Marx raised money as a middle man, studying available products, finding ways to make them cheaper, and then closing sales. Enough funding was raised to purchase tooling from previous employer Strauss for two obsolete tin toys – the Alabama Coon Jigger and Zippo the Climbing Monkey (Time Magazine 1955; King 1986, p. 188). With subtle changes, Marx was able to turn these toys into hits, selling more than eight million of each within two years. Another success was the «Mouse Orchestra» with tinplate mice on piano, fiddle, snare, and one conducting (King 1986, pp. 188–189).
Marx listed six qualities he believed were needed for a successful toy: familiarity, surprise, skill, play value, comprehensibility and sturdiness (Richardson & Richardson 1999, p. 42). By 1922, both Louis and David Marx were millionaires. Initially, Marx produced few original toys by predicting the hits and manufacturing them less expensively than the competition. The yo-yo is an example: although Marx is sometimes wrongly credited with inventing the toy, the company was quick to market its own version. During the 1920s, about 100 million Marx yo-yos were sold (Time Magazine 1955).
Unlike most companies, Marx’s revenues grew during the Great Depression, with the establishment of production facilities in economically hard-hit industrial areas of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and England (Richardson & Richardson 1999, p. 63). By 1937, the company had more than $3.2 million in assets ($42.6 million in 2005 dollars), with debt of just over $500,000. He was declared «Toy King of the World» in October 1937 in a Londonnewspaper. By 1938, Marx employed 500 workers in the Dudley factory and 4000 in the American factories (Kern 2015, p. 31). Marx was the largest toy manufacturer in the world by the 1950s. Fortune Magazine in January 1946 had declared him «Toy King» suggesting at least $20 million in sales for 1941, but again in 1955, a Time Magazine article also proclaimed Louis Marx «the Toy King,» and that year, the company had about $50 million in sales (Time Magazine 1955). Marx was the star article of the magazine with his picture displayed on the front cover. Marx was the initial inductee in the Toy Industry Hall of Fame, and his plaque proclaimed him «The Henry Ford of the toy industry.»
At its peak, Louis Marx and Company operated three manufacturing plants in the United States: Erie, Pennsylvania, Girard, Pennsylvania, and Glen Dale, West Virginia. The Erie plant was the oldest and largest, while the Girard plant, acquired in 1934 with the purchase of Girard Model Works, produced toy trains, and the Glen Dale plant produced toy vehicles (Marx Trains 2007). Additionally, Marx operated numerous plants overseas, and in 1955 five percent of the toys Marx sold in the US were made in Japan (Time Magazine 1955). In 1952 Marx Company stationary listed operations in: Mexico, London England, Swansea Wales, Durbin South Africa, Sydney Australia, Toronto Canada, Sao Paulo Brazil and Paris France. By 1959, the demand for American toys was a billion dollars a year (AFL CIO Marx Factory Documentary 1959).
Marx enjoyed his wealth at his 20.5-acre estate in the wealthy suburb of Scarsdale, north of New York City. The estate featured a 25-room Georgian mansion, a barn and stables for horses he raised and other amenities. The estate was sold to a developer after his death in 1982, to make way for some 29 homes (The New York Times 1982).
Among the most enduring Marx creations were a long series of boxed «playsets» throughout the 1950s and 1960s based on television shows and historical events. These include «Roy Rogers Rodeo Ranch» and Western Town, «Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett at the Alamo», «Gunsmoke», «Wagon Train», «The Rifleman Ranch», «The Lone Ranger Ranch», «Battle of the Blue and Grey», «The Revolutionary War» (including «Johnny Tremain»), «Tales of Wells Fargo», «The Untouchables«, «Robin Hood», «The Battle of the Little Big Horn», «Arctic Explorer», «Ben Hur», «Fort Apache», «Zorro», «Battleground», «Tom Corbett Training Academy», and many others (Marx Playsets, Atomic Home Videos LLC, 2010). Playsets included highly detailed plastic figures and accessories, many with some of the toy world’s finest tin lithography. A Marx playset box was invariably bursting with contents, yet very few were ever priced above the average of $4–$7. Greatly expanded sets, such as «Giant Ben Hur» sold for $10 to $12 in the early 1960s. This pricing formula adhered to the Marx policy of «more for less» and made the entire series attainable to most customers for many years. Original sets are highly prized by baby boomer collectors to this day (Kern 2015). Collector’s books titled «Boy Toys» and «The Big Toy Box at Sears» feature the original advertisements for many of these sets and are well worth having as a visual reference.
Marx produced dollhouses from the 1920s into the 1970s. In the late 1940s Marx began to produce metal lithographed dollhouses with plastic furniture (at the same time it began producing service stations). These dollhouse were variations of the Colonial style. An instant sensation was the «Disney» house, featured in the 1949 Sears catalogue. The popularity of Marx dollhouses gained momentum, and up to 150,000 Marx dollhouses were produced in the 1950s. Two house sizes were available, with two different size furniture to match; the most popular in the 1/2″ to 1′ scale, and the larger 3/4″ to 1′ scale. An L-shaped ranch hit the market in 1953, followed by a split-level of 1958. Curiously, in the early 1960s a dollhouse with a bomb shelter was sold briefly.
As the space race heated up, Marx playsets reflected the obsession with all things extraterrestrial such as «Rex Mars», «Moon Base», «Cape Canaveral», and «IGY International Geophysical Year», among other space themed sets. In a similar theme, Marx also capitalized on the robot craze, producing the Big Loo, «Your friend from the Moon», and the popular Rock’em Sock’em Robots action game.
In 1963, Marx began making a series of beatnik style plastic figurines called the Nutty Mads, which included some almost psychedelic creations, such as Donald the Demon — a half-duck, half-madman driving a miniature car. These were similar to the counterculture characters of other companies introduced about a year before, such as Revell’s Rat Fink by «Big Daddy» Ed Roth, or Hawk Models’ «Weird-Oh’s«, designed by Bill Campbell (Atomic Home Videos LLC, 2010).
Toy Train Sets
Louis Marx and Company entered a five-year selling contract with Girard Model Works in 1929 and in 1932 contracted Woods/Girard to exclusively produce all his trains and toys. The trains were called Joy Line. These were small four inch tinplate cars with a small windup or electric engine. Marx officially acquired the company in 1935, although his brand appears on floor trains, trolleys, Joy Line and the M10000 sets, years before the acquisition. This was the beginning of Marx trains (Matzke 1989; Joy Line, pp. 41–45). In 1934 Marx produced its first newly designed model train set, the streamlined Union Pacific M-10000 (Matzke 1989; Articulated Streamliners 1934–1954, pp. 94–95). The streamlined Marx Commodore Vanderbilt was issued in 1935 with new 6 inch tinplate cars. The ever popular Marx Canadian Pacific 3000 appeared in 1936 in Canada, while the articulated Marx Mercury was introduced to America. Marx continued to make tinplate train sets until 1972. Plastic sets began in 1952 and only plastic sets were made after 1973, until the end of the company in 1975 (Matzke 1989; Louis Marx:Epilogue, pp. 10–11).
Toy King Overtakes Lionel
Even though Marx trains never held the prestige of Lionel’s trains, they were able to outsell them for most of the late fifties. While Lionel’s top mid-fifties toy sales were some $32 million (Coleman 1988; Baulch 2001), the Marx’s 1955 toy sales were $50 million (Time Magazine 1955). When it comes to quality and quantity, Louis Marx and Company is considered «the most important producer of inexpensive American toy trains» (Claytor Jr., Doyle & McKenney 1993; Introduction, pp. 6).
Cast iron was unwieldy, heavy, and not well-suited to proper detail or model proportions and gradually it was replaced by pressed tin. Marx offered a variety of tin vehicles, from carts to dirigibles — the company would lithograph