In the 1960s, the once-great Louis Marx toy company produced a line of plastic figurines of U.S. presidents. These Marx presidential figures garnered a bit of a cult following, and they retain one today.
Why a toy company would make figurines of presidents
Today it seems a bit odd for a toy company to make presidential figurines. But the 1950s and 1960s were a different time. Toy companies weren’t the huge conglomerates they are now, so it was a bit easier to carve out niches. And Louis Marx was involved in politics, whether he meant to get involved or not. He became friends with Dwight Eisenhower when he was a general, and they remained friends while he was president. And his son in law was Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst whose role in the Pentagon Papers resulted in the Watergate burglary, the scandal that ended Richard Nixon’s presidency.
Louis Marx was never big on educational toys, but plastic figures of presidents appealed to him, and they were in his company’s wheelhouse. Marx made a lot of playsets based around hard plastic figurines.
Marx farmed out the sculpting to the Ferriot Brothers of Ohio, and produced them in his U.S. factories.
The Marx presidents figures
The Marx presidential figurines came in two sizes. The taller figures stood about 60mm high, or about 2.5 inches. The smaller version stood about 38mm high, or 1.5 inches–about right for O scale, if you want presidents walking around on your layout. The 60mm versions make nice statues for train layouts. Marx also produced Eisenhower in HO scale but never produced a full line in that size. Notably, Franklin Roosevelt is portrayed standing, a reflection of his efforts to hide his illness from polio.
They were made of styrene, what we sometimes call hard plastic. And they came in several variations. You can find them unpainted, painted a bronze color, or painted realistically. There are also some variations in the figures’ poses.
The set evolved over time, of course, because new presidents get elected every 4 or 8 years. The first sets appeared in 1954, during the Eisenhower era, and revised sets added John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
In 1968, Marx released figures of seven presidential candidates: Ronald Reagan, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, Robert F. Kennedy, and Charles Percy. Marx also made a prototype Eugene McCarthy figure but never put it in production.
The line ended with Nixon. A combination of factors ended the line there. Marx sold out in 1972 and the company struggled under its new management, limping along until it closed for good in 1980. US politics grew much more toxic after 1968. The 1968 election was marred by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy followed by the bitterly divided and protest-filled 1968 Democratic National Convention, and then the Watergate scandal took down Richard Nixon’s presidency in 1974.
I use the phrase “realistically painted” loosely. Marx produced the painted figures in the United States, then shipped them overseas to Taiwan and Hong Kong for painting. The quality of the painting varied.
Some of the sets also came with paint so the purchaser could paint them themselves. The quality of those paint jobs also could vary widely of course. A skilled hobbyist could do a better job than the prepainted figures, while an unskilled hobbyist’s work would look worse than the prepainted figures.
Painting figures is a skill that almost anyone can learn. Here are my tips, as a non-artist, for painting miniature figures passably. I barely passed my grade school art classes and never pursued art after 8th grade, so if I can follow this formula, you can too.
Collecting Marx presidential figures today
Marx presidential figures turn up on Ebay very regularly. Collecting them may be easier today than it was in the 1960s and 70s when they were still in retail stores. Of course the most common figures are the figures up to Eisenhower, but Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon are hardly rare. It’s likely that revered presidents like Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln sold in larger quantities and were saved in larger quantities than unremarkable or controversial presidents, but it doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference in price.
Frequently you’ll pay more for shipping than you will for an individual figure itself, so the cheapest way to collect them is to buy them in lots, or hold out for a complete set. It’s not significantly more expensive to ship 10 figures than to ship one.
Of course buying them locally is possible. People tended to hold onto them as keepsakes, so they turn up in estates and at antique stores. I typically pay $2-$3 apiece for them locally. It just takes a lot more patience to collect them this way.
Patric Verrone has produced figures to pick up where Marx left off, from Ford to Biden. Verrone’s editions cost more than the originals, but they look like what Marx would have made, so if you want to update your set, he’s your source. Of course they will always be much less common than the Marx originals, since he makes them in his kitchen.