Louis Marx and Company
|Industry||Toys and hobbies|
|Successors||Quaker Qats , Dunbee-Combex-Marx|
|Headquarters||New York, New York|
|Key people||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 1978. Its products were often imprinted with the slogan, "One of the many Marx toys, have you all of them?"
Logo and offerings
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, diecast toy cars, and HO scale and O scale trains. 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 (King 1986, 188). 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, 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, 188-189).
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, Marx 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).
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", "Tales Of Wells Fargo", "The Untouchables", "Robin Hood", "The Battle Of The Little Big Horn", "Arctic Explorer", "Ben Hur", "Fort Apache", "Johnny Tremain", 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 Galactic 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 bizarre 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-Os", designed by Bill Campbell.
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). 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. Lithographed tin tanks, airplanes, police motorcycles, tractors, trains, luxury liners, and rocket ships were all produced in bright colors. Even doll houses and gasoline stations were made in tin.
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. These included several different series like the truck hauling five tinplate "stake bed" trailers, many variations on larger truck "car carriers" hauling different vehicles, and a set of completely chromed trucks. Metal gas and fire station sets could also be purchased on which to play with the vehicles more fully.
After World War II, like most manufacturers, Marx took advantage of molding techniques with various plastics to make new vehicles. Pressed tin and steel remained, and these were often Buicks, Nashes, and other fantastical sedans, race cars, and trucks not connected to any real vehicle. One interesting car was a Buick-like woody wagon in tin. These were often of larger size, about 10 to 20 inches long. Some vehicles were difficult to identify as Marx: One had to look for the small "X-in-O" logo, usually on the lower rear of the vehicle. Often there were no markings on the base.
More and more, however, plastic models appeared and in a variety of sizes. These included simple replicas of many cars, both foreign and domestic, like the Figoni & Falaschi designed Talbot, Volkswagens, Jaguars (the XK120 was a favorite shape), and others. These were usually simple castings with plastic single piece axle-wheel pieces and no interiors, three pieces in all. There were, however, a couple of exceptions to the simple plastic toy trend.
In the early 1950s, one Marx product showed a greater sophistication in toy offerings. The "Fix All" series was introduced whose main gimmick was larger plastic vehicles (about 14 inches long) that could be taken apart and put back together with "tools and equipment". A Pontiac convertible and sedan, 1953 Ford Country Squire woody wagon, a Chrysler convertible, a Jaguar XK120-like roadster, a Willys Jeep, a utility truck, a tow truck, a tractor, a larger scale motorcycle, a helicopter, and a couple of airplanes were all part of the Fix It series. The cars' boxes advertised sayings like "Over 50 parts" and "For a real mechanic!" As an example, the tow truck came with die cast open and box wrench, adjustable-style wrench, two-piece jack, fuel can, hammer, screwdriver, and fire extinguisher. The Jeep came with a special cross-shaped wrench, a screw jack and working lights.
The Marx Hudson promotional
There was one sign, however, that the company took making miniature cars more seriously than many toy manufacturers. Trying to enter the promotional vehicle market alongside Cruver, PMC, Banthrico and AMT, Marx produced what was a high point in the precision replica of a motor vehicle up to this time. This was a detailed promotional 1948 Hudson Hornet ("step-down" design) made specifically for Hudson dealers. The car was designed with the help of Hudson engineers who lent company blueprints of the actual car so tooling could be crafted for the plastic model. Dies for the car reportedly cost $35,000 and doors and rear quarter panel on one side of the model were molded in clear plastic (Automotive News 1948; Consumer Guide 1979, pp. 34–35). The chassis of the model was highly detailed in black with frame and cross members in colorful red.
This promo was made about the same time that other companies also began making plastic vehicles for the automobile industry. It was a short-lived product, however, as it appears that Marx made no other promotional models for any other motor vehicle company, though it did make an impressive toy of Harley Earl's futuristic LeSabre concept from the early 1950s, and a handsome remote control 1953 Chevrolet coupe. Today examples of the 1948 Hudson promotional are heartily sought by collectors, fetching prices between $400 and $800.
With blueprints in hand, Marx then made toy variations of this Hudson. For example, instead of clear plastic windows, the 1948 Hudson fire chief car (see photograph) had a metal insert behind the plastic window posts, visible from all around with the faces of firemen printed on it. The car had a simple key operated wind up motor, roof light, front wheels that steered and the precision, detail, and nice proportions of the promotional model. The chassis lacked the detail of the promo, and had a metal base with alcove for the battery and visible wind up motor for the rear wheels.
Marx also made Studebaker and Packard vehicles in the 1930s and 1940s and beyond. They often appeared with the Studebaker badge logo in a very promotional way, though the connections with the company as a promotional provider are uncertain. One of Marx's later Studebakers was an Avanti with a dented fender that could be replaced with a 'repaired' one, which was odd, as the real Avanti had a fiberglass body - and would not dent. A 1948 Packard Fire Chief's car was one that looked, in theme, much like the step-down Hudson.
Into the 1960s and 1970s, Marx still made some impressive cars, though increasingly these were made in Japan and Hong Kong. Especially impressive were two-foot long "Big Bruiser" tow trucks with Ford C-Series cabs and "Big Job" dump trucks, a T-bucket hot rod of the same large size and some foreign cars like a Jaguar SS100, which was later reissued. Marx made some 1/25 scale slot cars, like a Jaguar XKE remote control convertible. Into the 1970s, Marx jumped on several bandwagons, for example, plastic pull string funny cars of typical 1:25 scale model size, but this was not quick enough to save the company.
Marx sometimes joined with European toy makers, putting their name on traditional European toys. For example, about 1968, Solido and Marx made a deal to sell these French metal die cast models in the U.S. with the Marx name added to the box. The boxes were, for the most part, regular red Solido boxes with the Marx "x-in-o" logo and "by Marx" directly below the Solido script. Nowhere on the cars did the Marx name appear.
The small scale market
During the 1960s Marx offered its Elegant Models, a collection of Matchbox-like 1930s to 1950s style race cars in red and yellow boxes. Also offered were airplanes, trucks, and, in the same series, metal animals boxed in a similar style. Some of the vehicles from this era were marketed under the Linemar or Collectoy names.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Marx tried to compete not only with Matchbox, but with Mattel Hot Wheels, making small cars with thin axle, low-friction wheels. These were marketed, not too successfully, under a few different names. One of the most common was "Mini Marx Blazers" with "Super Speed Wheels". The cars were made in a slightly smaller scale than Hot Wheels, often 1:66 to about 1:70 (Toy Collector 2010). Proportions of these cars were simple, but accurate, though details were somewhat lacking (Ragan 2000, 54). Some cars, however, included such niceties as a driver behind the wheel. While some of the earlier toys had a simpler Tootsietoy style single casting, newer cars were colored in bright chrome paints with decals and fast axle wheels. Tires were plain black with thin whitewalls.
The decline of Louis Marx and Company
The company slowly lost its preeminence from the 1950s on, perhaps due to not aggressively advertising on television as its rivals did. In 1955, with sales of US$50 million, Marx only spent $312.00 on advertising for the entire year (Time Magazine 1955). By contrast, Mattel Toys in the same year had sales of $6 Million but spent $500,000 for advertising, sponsoring shows like The Mickey Mouse Club (Clark 2007, p. 220). Also, eventually, the high cost of labor in the United States, always a factor in the distinctiveness and simplicity of American toys, made it very difficult to compete with toy producers in Asia.
In 1972, Marx sold his company to the Quaker Oats Company for $54 million ($246 million in 2005 dollars) and retired at the age 76 (Smith 2000, pp. 9–10).
Quaker Oats-Marx era
Quaker owned the Fisher-Price brand, but struggled with Marx. Quaker had hoped Marx and Fisher-Price would have synergy, but the companies' sales patterns were too different. Marx was also faulted for largely ignoring the trend towards electronic toys in the early 1970s. In late 1975, Quaker closed the plants in Erie and Girard, and in early 1976, Quaker sold its struggling Marx division to the British conglomerate Dunbee-Combex-Marx, who had bought the former Marx UK subsidiary in 1967.
A downturn in the British economy in conjunction with high interest rates caused Dunbee-Combex-Marx to struggle, and these unfavorable market conditions caused a number of British toy manufacturers, including Dunbee-Combex-Marx, to collapse. By 1979, most U.S. operations were ceased, and by 1980, the last Marx plant closed in West Virginia (Vitello 2006). The Marx brand disappeared and Dunbee-Combex-Marx filed for bankruptcy. The Marx assets were liquidated in the early 1980s, with some trademarks and molding tools going to a few other toy manufacturers of the time, including the Mego Corporation.
Some popular Marx tooling is still used today to produce toys and trains. A company called Marx Trains, Inc. produced lithographed tin trains, both of original design and based on former Louis Marx patterns. Plastic O scale train cars and scenery using former Marx molds, are now marketed under the "K-Line by Lionel" brand name. Model Power produces HO scale trains from old Marx molds. The Big Wheel rolls on, as a property of Alpha International, Inc. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa), which has been acquired by J. Lloyd International, Inc. also of Cedar Rapids. Mattel reintroduced Rock'em Sock'em Robots around 2000 (albeit, at a smaller size than the original). Marx's toy soldiers and other plastic figures are in production today in China for the North American market and are mostly targeted at collectors, although they sometimes appear on the general consumer market, particularly in dollar stores.
The Marx company name has changed hands numerous times. However, despite the similar name, none of the Marx-branded companies of today can claim a direct lineage to the original Louis Marx and Company.
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- Clark, Eric. 2007. The Real Toy Story, Transworld.
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- MarX Trains and Toys Info: The Toy King Louis Marx. 2007. eBay On-line review. 
- Ragan, Mac. 2000. Diecast Cars of the 1960s. Osceola, Wisconsin: MBI Publishing. ISBN 0-7603-0719-9.
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- Time Magazine. 1955. The Little King. Original magazine article online. Dec. 12. 
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- Vitello. 2006. Wheeling: Toy Museum Rekindles Visitor's Memories. Louisville Courier-Journal on-line. January 21.