Louis Marx: The bygone toy king

Louis Marx was the founder of the toy company that bore his name. His larger toys became staples in Christmas catalogs for generations, while his smaller toys dominated the discount stores of their day.

Louis Marx was first and foremost a toy salesman, but he lived an interesting life. He counted President Dwight Eisenhower among his friends, and Daniel Ellsberg, known for the Pentagon Papers, married his daughter.

Early influences

Louis Marx
This plastic figure is a reasonable likeness of Louis Marx. He sometimes handed them out as promotional items.

Marx was born in Brooklyn on August 11, 1896 to Jacob and Clara Marx. He had one brother and one sister. After graduating high school at the age of 15, he took a job as an errand boy with the toymaker Ferdinand Strauss at the age of 16. He ascended quickly, becoming a salesman and then managing a plant by the time he was 20. A disagreement with the board of directors over how to increase efficiency and cut costs forced him out. Marx never forgot this, and it influenced the rest of his career.

Following his dismissal from Strauss, Marx enlisted in the U.S. Army, rising to the rank of Sergeant during his brief military career. He was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life in 1918. Marx’s fondness for the Army remained for the rest of his life, and it was reflected in his affinity for military toys. Once he became famous, he made a habit of befriending as many generals as possible, including General Dwight Eisenhower.

After returning to civilian life, Marx worked briefly as a salesman for Newton and Thompson, a maker of wooden toys. There he increased sales from 1,500 units to 1.5 million. But again, his ideas for making more toys at lower cost led to a disagreement that cost him his job.

Louis Marx and Company

In 1919, Louis Marx and his brother David founded the company that bore his name. Initially they worked as distributors, but were eventually able to buy tooling to start manufacturing toys themselves. Marx’s initial break came with Ferdinand Strauss fell on hard times. Strauss filed for bankruptcy on March 23, 1921, and Marx was able to purchase the tooling for two obsolete tin toys from Strauss, a dancing figure and a monkey on a string. They didn’t own a factory, so they had to pay other companies to make the toys for them.

Finally free to try out his ideas for increasing efficiency and lowering production costs, he found he was onto something. He applied a new printed design to the tin used by the old dies to make them look like new toys. The combination of the fresh design and lower price proved successful. Both sold 8 million units in their first year of production.

The plant in Erie, PA operated by Carter Toys became known as the Monkey Works, due to the overwhelming number of toy monkeys it produced. Marx purchased Carter Toys in 1942 and took over the plant.

Marx continued distributing toys for other companies even as it grew into a manufacturer in its own right. And Marx quickly became successful at producing knockoffs. Soon after Duncan Toys introduced its Yo-yo, Marx produced a copy that it sold through Sears. Sears sold 100 million Marx Yo-yos.

In 1934, Marx acquired a former Fokker airplane factory in West Virginia. It also acquired a factory in Wales during this same timeframe. And in 1935, Marx acquired Girard Model Works and its factory in Girard, PA. Girard had been making trains for several years and Marx had been a primary distributor. After 1935, Marx expanded the Girard line and continued making trains until 1974.

During World War II, most toy production was forbidden to support the war effort. Marx manufactured shell casings for bullets and small bombs in his factories, even using his warehouses as makeshift factories to increase production capacity.

The later years

For a time in the 1950s, Marx was the largest toy company in the world. After World War II, Marx successfully transitioned from lithographed pressed tin toys to plastic and diecast toys, sometimes using a combination of all three in its larger playsets. But as tastes changed in the late 1960s, an aging Marx struggled to change with the times, and he largely missed the opportunity that electronic toys presented. Late in his career, Marx managed a couple of hits with Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots and the Big Wheel, but by the early 1970s, Marx wanted to retire. In 1972 he sold his company to Quaker Oats for $54 million. As you might guess, the union was less than successful.

Marx’s personal life

Louis Marx married Irene (Renee) Freda Saltzman on December 31, 1927. They had four children together: Barbara, Louis Jr., Jacqueline, and Patricia. Although he was Jewish by blood, Marx did not practice. He and his family attended an Episcopalian church, St. James the Less in Scarsdale, New York. Marx and his family lived in a 9,200-square foot brick mansion on 20 acres in Scarsdale that was built in 1903.

Renee died of breast cancer in 1942 at the age of 35. Marx grew depressed after her death and considered retiring early. On March 30, 1947, he married his second wife, Idella Ruth Blackadder.

Marx was friends with numerous World War II generals, including Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th president of the United States. Eisenhower attended parties at Marx’s estate, and the two sometimes exchanged gifts. According to legend, they first met when Eisenhower needed an electric train fixed.

Above all else, Louis Marx was kind. He was kind to his workers and priced his toys so working-class families could afford them. He was also kind and generous with children. Hundreds of children lined up outside his door on Halloween night, where he handed out toys and candy.

Marx’s children

None of Marx’s children had any interest in the toy business. But all of them were successful in their own right, and like their father, many of them crossed paths with people of historical significance.

Barbara Marx Hubbard, his oldest daughter, was an author and futurist. She married artist and painter Earl Hubbard in 1951, separating in 1973. Barbara wrote seven books and in 1984 became the first woman to be nominated for Vice President on the Democratic ticket, although she lost the ultimate nomination to Geraldine Ferraro. She died in 2019.

Louis Marx Jr became a financier and philanthropist. He founded the Louis Marx, Jr. Center for Children and Families at Binghamton University. The younger Marx once funded Apex Energy, a failed oil venture with Neil Bush, the son of President George H.W. Bush.

Jacqueline Marx Barnett became a painter and printmaker. While working for Senator Clifford Case (R-N.J.), she met Wayne Barnett, a clerk for Justice John Marshall Harlan. They married and had five children. In 1966, Barnett took a position at Stanford, which allowed her to take painting classes on campus. She is known for brilliantly colored abstract oil paintings.

On August 8, 1970, Marx’s daughter Patricia married Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who, in 1971, leaked the Pentagon Papers, a study of the U.S. government decisionmaking regarding the Vietnam war. Louis Marx, a Republican and strident anti-Communist, regarded his son-in-law a traitor. Ellsberg was charged under the Espionage Act in 1973, but the investigation against him led to governmental misconduct culminating in the Watergate burglaries of 1972. The charges against Ellsberg were dismissed four months later. Patricia Marx Ellsberg is an activist and journalist, who opposed the Vietnam War even before the leak of the Pentagon Papers. Her causes include war and nuclear energy.

Afterword

Marx may or may not have outlived the company that bore his name. With none of his children interested in the toy business and unwilling to develop a protege who might do to him what he did to his former employers, there was no logical successor for Marx as he aged. Somewhat fittingly, Dunbee-Combex-Marx, the conglomerate that contained Marx’s former company, went out of business on February 5, 1982, the same day Marx died in a hospital in White Plains, New York at the age of 85.

Developer Anthony Scarcella purchased Marx’s mansion and acreage to subdivide it, building 29 homes and leaving the mansion on 1.75 acres. Alexander Radin purchased the mansion later in 1985, for $550,000, living there until 2007. Scarcella repurchased the mansion, which had fallen into disrepair, for $2.5 million from Radin’s estate intending to tear it down and build three more homes. He was denied the permits due to the historical significance. He listed the home for sale for nearly $3 million in 2011, but the mansion needed about $3 million worth of work to make it safe and livable. In 2012, Scarcella succeeded in getting the home declared a public nuisance, and demolished the mansion later that year.

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