Last Updated on November 24, 2018 by Dave Farquhar
In the 1950s, Marx produced hard plastic 60mm figures of U.S. presidents. Louis Marx meant for them to be an educational toy or collectible, but the Marx president figurines turn out to be a great accessory for train layouts too. Here’s how I use them.
If you’re more interested in collecting them, I hope you’ll still read on. I have some tips for finding them and restoring damaged figurines.
Marx president figurines
The Marx president figurines measure about 60mm in height. This means they’re about 12 feet tall in S scale, and about 9 feet tall in O scale. This makes them just about perfect for a 1950s Marx, Lionel, or American Flyer train layout. They’d be nearly 18 feet tall in HO scale, so that may be a little too big, but that’s up to you to decide. They’re from the postwar time period, and they’re made of the state-of-the-art material of the time: plastic.
If you’re a tin guy like me, plastic may not look right on your layout. You can paint them to disguise their plastic appearance. But I use mine as-is.
Marx produced a figurine of every president from George Washington to Richard Nixon before going out of business. They came both unpainted and painted.
Using Marx president figurines as statues
The base of the figure is about the size of a quarter. So when you have that odd empty space in your layout that’s too small for a building or even a tree, try placing a statue there.
You could place a figure in a park or a town square. Or you could place it in front of a school, suggesting that school was named in that president’s honor. An unpainted stone statue seems a bit more tasteful.
If you model the wrong side of the tracks, a Lincoln statue in front of a used car lot wouldn’t be unheard of. I’ve seen more than one “Honest Abe’s Used Cars” in my lifetime. I wouldn’t expect to see a stone statue in front of Honest Abe’s though. That sounds like a painted fiberglass statue’s place, to me.
When one of my train buddies acquired a figurine of Louis Marx for his train layout, I thought of a Marx figurine of President Tyler at the local vintage toy shop. “I need to do this with random one-term presidents,” I said. Take it as a joke, or as a political statement.
The plastic fits in just fine with Plasticville buildings of course. If you find it too shiny, you could spray it with a bit of Testors Dullcote. If you’re a hi-rail or scale modeler, you could even weather it a bit.
Using statues to set time
Some choices are obvious. Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson can fit any layout for any reason, unless you’re modeling the very beginning of trains. Honoring any of the great presidents with a statue is something you don’t have to explain. Moving further ahead in time, a statue of either Roosevelt would set your layout’s time firmly in the 20th century.
Using statues to set place
Some towns or cities would have a presidential statue for reasons other than a president being one from the pantheon of all-time greats. Harry Truman was from Independence, Missouri, near Kansas City. A Truman statue suggests a setting somewhere in Missouri. Ulysses Grant wasn’t from St. Louis, but he lived much of his life near St. Louis. A statue of Grant in St. Louis is something you wouldn’t have to explain.
Finding Marx president figurines
The Marx president figurines aren’t exactly rare. They turn up in antique malls, flea markets, and vintage toy shops fairly frequently. There’s always a steady supply of them on Ebay. They’re also the kind of thing you could expect to see at an estate sale.
Unless you stumble onto a complete set, finding them all will take some time. But with hobbies, that’s kind of the idea.
Restoring Marx president figurines
If you find a Marx president with bad paint, you can touch it up with acrylics or enamels. Badly-painted Marx president figurines can be restored to its original clean, white, unpainted glory by soaking it for a few hours in purple cleaner.
If unpainted figures have yellow spots on them, you can try cleaning that up by soaking them in hydrogen peroxide in hot sunlight for a few hours. This works well on 1980s plastics but admittedly I haven’t tried it on 1950s plastic.
A lower-risk way to improve the appearance of a yellowed figure is to just paint it white, off-white, or gray. If you use acrylic paint, it will be easy to remove the paint at any time to restore it back to as-found condition. I prefer not to permanently alter vintage toys when possible. Many modern spray paints bond to plastic, which may be difficult to strip off later if you want. So I recommend using gesso as primer.
If you find a figure with pieces broken off, they glue back together exactly like a plastic model kit. If you get perfect alignment and use a tiny amount of glue, the repair may not be visible. If you get less than perfect alignment, you can fill in any gaps with modeling putty and then paint the figure.
Sourcing non-train items for layouts is a mindset. There are numerous untapped sources for figures as well, beyond the Marx president figures.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.