It’s got a bell!!! And you can ride it. If you’re a little kid. Played with, thoroughly, but not wrecked. It can still put out a fire. A classic from arguably THE classic American toy company.
31″ long x 7″ wide x 14″ tall
Louis Marx and Company was an American toy manufacturer in business from 1919 to 1978. 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 1950s.
The Marx logo was the letters “MAR” in a circle with a large X through it, resembling a railroad crossing sign. 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 retailers such as Sears and Montgomery Ward, especially around Christmas.
Founded in 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. 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 .
Marx listed six qualities he believed were needed for a successful toy: familiarity, surprise, skill, play value, comprehensibility and sturdiness (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.
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. 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. Marx was the largest toy manufacturer in the world by the 1950s. In 1955, a Time Magazine article proclaimed Louis Marx “the Toy King,” and that year, the company had about $50 million in sales (Time Magazine 1955). 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 U.S.A. were made in Japan (Time Magazine 1955).
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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”, “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”, “Battleground”, “Tom Corbett Training Academy”, and many others.
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. 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.
Cast iron was unwieldy, heavy, and not well-suited to proper detail or model proportions and gradually it was replaced by pressed tin (Richardson 1999, p. 67). Marx offered a variety of tin vehicles, from carts to dirigibles — the company would lithograph toy patterns on large sheets of tinplated steel. These would then be stamped, die-cut, folded, and assembled (Vintage Marx 2015). Marx was long known for its car and truck toys, and the company would take small steps to renew the popularity of an old product. In the 1920s, an old truck toy that was falling behind in sales was loaded with plastic ice cubes and the company had a new hit (Time Magazine 1955). The Honeymoon Express, a wind-up train on track with a plane circling above, later became the Mickey Mouse Express and then the Subway Express. Popeye pushing a barrel of spinach eventually became the 1940 Tidy Tim Street Cleaner and Charlie McCarthy in his “Benzine Buggy” (Vintage Marx 2015; Richarson 1999, p. 66).
Some of the most popular vehicles were Crazy Cars like the Funny Flivver of 1926 – another was the eloping “Joy Riders” (Richardson 1998, p. 43). One earlier and much sought after tin toy was an open Amos ‘n Andy Ford Model T four door, as well as another Model T with driver apparently on a European jaunt and hauling a trunk at the rear with the names of various European cities on it. This model was produced in a variety of liveries (Richardson 1999, pp. 43, 63). Lithographed tin tanks, airplanes, police motorcycles, tractors, trains, luxury liners, and rocket ships were all produced in bright colors. One toy, the Tricky Taxi seems to have had origins in a Heinrich Muller toy from Nuremberg in Germany. The 1935 G-Man pursuit car was possibly the largest vehicle Marx ever made at 14 1/2 inches long. Even doll houses, gasoline stations, parking lots and street scenes were made in tin (Richardson 1999, p. 66). That Marx was doing well even in the depression is shown by the date of introduction of their well-known motorcycle cop toy – 1933.
A number of tinplate trucks, buses and vans were made in the 1930s, particularly in the latter part of the decade. Trucks were made, particularly Studebakers, in a variety of colors and formats, and often advertised in Sears catalogs (Tustin 2014). These included several different series like the truck hauling five tinplate “stake bed” trailers, a ‘dumping’ garbage truck, many variations on larger truck “car carriers” hauling different vehicles, and a set of completely chromed trucks (Tustin 2014). Metal gas and fire station sets could also be purchased on which to play with the vehicles more fully.