When you think of the top American toymakers today, names like Mattel, Hasbro, and Jakks Pacific come to mind.
But during the prewar and postwar era, one toy manufacturer stood tall above the rest—Louis Marx and Co. While the company ceased to be a primary toy presence more than 30 years ago, collectors have never forgotten the toys produced during the company’s golden age.
Louis Marx and his brother, David, founded Louis Marx and Co. in New York City in 1919. During the company’s early years it was not known for creating original toys or generating product designs, but Louis Marx compensated by acting as a “middle man,” carefully studying the latest available products, which in turn led him to accurately predict which toys would be successful so his company could manufacture them less expensively than the competition.
No toy best exemplifies the success of this approach better than the yo-yo. Although the yo-yo had already been a popular toy for a number of years, it was Marx’s ability to market one of his own at a lower cost that launched the yo-yo into a new stratosphere of popularity. And by the end of the 1920s, Louis Marx and Co. sold nearly 100 million of them.
The Great Depression of course brought tremendous economic hardship and strife to everyone in America…almost everyone that is. Louis Marx and Co. was one of the very few American businesses that actually saw revenue growth during the Great Depression, thanks in large part to mass production and mass marketing through nickel and dime stores for their least expensive products, and through stores like Sears and Montgomery Ward for their most expensive products.
By the ’50s Louis Marx and Co. was the largest toy manufacturer in the world, producing a wide variety of toys like: play sets, trains, toy soldiers, tin toys, and toy guns just to name a few. In many ways the company really was the Mattel of its day!
In 1955 Louis Marx graced the cover of the December 12th issue of Time Magazine, with an article proclaiming him as “the Toy King.” In addition, Marx’s marketing and manufacturing genius was recognized by his becoming an initial member of the Toy Hall of Fame, with his plaque reading: “The Henry Ford of the toy industry.”
But the prosperous times of the ’20s-’50s were all but gone by the ’60s, as sales plummeted due in large part to a lack of effective advertising, especially on television, and a general inability to change with the times, largely ignoring the trend toward electronic toys.
In 1972, at age 76, Louis Marx retired and sold his company to the Quaker Oats Co., owners of Fisher-Price at the time. While the Fisher-Price brand did well, the Marx brand continued to struggle, losing money every year under Quaker Oats. In 1976, Quaker Oats sold its Marx division to British conglomerate Dunbee-Combex-Marx. But a decline in the British economy and high interest rates led to the collapse of Dunbee-Combex-Marx. By 1978 the Marx brand was gone, and Dunbee-Combex-Marx filed for bankruptcy and was liquidated in the early ’80s.
The Marx assets were also liquidated, with many of the patents and molds going to the Mego Corp. Today the rights to some Marx toys are owned by other companies, and some of its former products are still in production like lithographed tin trains, the original Marx Big Wheel, now owned by KidsWheels, Inc., and Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, now owned by Mattel. Marx toy soldiers and other plastic figures are now produced in China for the North American market and are mostly targeted at collectors, although they occasionally appear on the general consumer market, particularly at dollar stores.
The Marx name itself has changed hands several times over the years, but neither of the Marx-branded companies today have any connection to the original Louis Marx and Co. Although the Marx brand no longer has the presence it once did, the toys produced by Louis Marx and Co. during its golden age are widely sought out by collectors today. The most highly coveted Marx toys are arguably the play sets of the ’50s and early ’60s, with many of them selling for thousands of dollars. The 1959 Johnny Ringo Western Frontier play set is probably the holy grail of the Marx play sets, selling for at least $5,000 in today’s market.
But play sets are not the only Marx toys treasured by collectors. The figures that accompanied the play sets are highly desired for their craftsmanship and detail. Collectors also prize toy trains, tin toys, toy guns, and toy soldiers.
One museum dedicated to Marx toys and the company’s history is the Marx Toy Museum of Glen Dale, W.Va., the former home of one of the three American plants operated by Louis Marx and Co. at its peak. For more information on the museum please check out their Web site at www.marxtoymuseum.com. You can also contact the museum by email at email@example.com or by phone at 304-845-6022.
Justin Moen is a collector of 1:18-scale die-cast cars, 1:16-scale die-cast farm tractors, and Hot Wheels. He has edited more than 25 titles for Krause Publications. He may be reached at Justin.Moen@fwmedia.com.
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