Popularity of Marx toys continues to grow

“Blondie’s Jalopy” with Dagwood in the driver’s seat, a popular 1930s wind-up mechanical toy.

Although out of business for more than four decades collectors want Marx!

Collector interest in tin toys from the 1920s to the 1950s has continued to grow steadily over the last several decades. Leading the pack are the vintage toys made by Louis Marx & Co. The lithograph tin toys made by Marx, especially the mechanicals and friction motor varieties depicting popular cartoon and radio characters of the years between 1920 and 1940, hold great fascination for hobbyists.

“Buck Rogers Space Ship," " Dagwood Aeroplane," "Milton Berle Car," "Lone Ranger Rider," and various models of the "Sunny Side Service Station," to name but a few, have become prime collectibles.

The animals on these toys dance; cars drive in crazy patterns; and other items spin, walk and even wiggle their ears. One mechanism often activates another until three or four things are happening in one toy.  In the "Walt Disney Donald Duck Duet" toy of the 1930s Donald plays a drum while Goofy dances.

Toys made by Marx ranked as this country's number one best seller between World War I and the Korean War.  Their price tags often read as little as 25 cents and rarely more than $2.  Today, these same wonderful toys bring prices between $50 to $3,000, or more.

Among the largest toy firms in the history of the industry, the Louis Marx Company, with plants and research facilities spread across the country's landscape, was a modern success story. The ever growing number of collectors of Marx toys reflects the unique character and special quality of the firm's products.

Like many domestic industries, American toys got a giant boost by the ban on all German-made goods during World War I. Louis Marx was just one of many companies to begin making inroads in markets around the world at the expense of hapless German manufacturers. Employing techniques of mass production and mass marketing borrowed from the auto and steel industries, American-made toys, especially those by Marx; whose production runs were in the tens and hundreds of thousands for each product, conquered the world.

By now, though, with the end of the worst war up to that time in the history of mankind, there were changes in trends and directions.  People in the new enlightened century wanted no reminders of the horrors of war.  Parents began rejecting military toys for their children.  Into this void stepped Louis Marx with a uniquely different philosophy of toy making.

Louis Marx was born in 1896 in Brooklyn.  At a very young age he began working as an office boy for Ferdinand Strauss, a successful manufacturer of mechanical toys.  A good worker, Marx was also an ambitious learner.  He quickly became a crackerjack salesman and mastered both the art and science of toy making.  So much so that he started up his own firm in 1921 with his brother as a partner.

Marx concentrated on giving the public toys of cars, trucks and other miniatures reflecting the times, such as a wind-up bridge full of moving traffic.  He avoided military toys almost entirely, though he did do a brisk business in the 1930s with lithograph tin soldiers that could be "shot down" or knocked over by a toy gun or cannon.  His specialty, learned while a youngster with Strauss, was the mechanical toy, modernized and mass produced, that had moving parts and could be set into motion by the simple turn of a key or self-propelled by priming a friction device.

The toys that poured out of Marx's factories were lithograph tin types that he excelled in producing.  Only later did the company reluctantly change over to plastic after World War II.  Many of his most popular toys were taken from the Sunday funny pages, radio, the silver screen and, later, television.

The Milton Berle friction auto, seemingly always in production in the late 1940s and early '50s - though with a number of minor design and color changes, kept cash registers happily ringing.  The comic strip theme, above all others, reigned supreme - especially anything related to Disney, Dick Tracy, and Blondie and Dagwood.

By the 1940s Marx had emerged as the world's largest manufacturer of toys.  The company had six factories running full time in this country and was involved in full or part ownerships in toy making concerns in many parts of the globe.

Slowly though, this all began to change.

As the decade came to a close, the American toy industry had begun to radically change.  Emphasis now shifted to cheaply produced, poor quality toys heavily advertised on television. Consumer buying habits had shifted in regard to not only the types of toys wanted, but where they were bought.

The Marx Company had sold its toys mostly though the nation's five-and-dime chain stores, such as Grant's and Woolworth's.  Also to mail order outfits like Sears and Montgomery Ward, even to the point of producing special house brands, as with the "Happi-Time" trade name for Sears.  The firm employed few salesmen, relying instead on selling through mass merchandisers and working with high volumes.  Unfortunately, as the decades rolled along, retailing changed and discount stores eventually replaced the old time firms.

An inability to change with the times, along with a host of other difficulties, eventually took its toll and doomed the Marx Company.  In 1970 the toy making empire was sold. A few years later, after a series of losses, it closed down for good.

The countless toys made by Louis Marx & Co. between the 1920s and 1970s, while never comparable to the spectacular cast iron and wooden toys of the 19th century, and were designed to give pleasure to the children of the 20th century.  Marx's appeal to collectors today is magnetic because such playthings are a reflection of childhoods past.

The name of Louis Marx will always occupy an important part of the chronicle of American toy making.  The saga of him and his company is the story of modern toy marketing.