is Preserving Toy History.
Preserving Toy History.

Feature Article

Original Marx Toys Hand Sculpted Prototypes

The following information primarily pertains to Marx Toys playset, figure and action figure and accessory prototypes, although it is applicable to many other Marx Toys and other classic toy company prototypes

(Please click on the links in the article to see examples of things mentioned!  The pictures will pop up in a new window.)
(see below the text for a slide show of various vintage, original hand-made prototypes from Louis Marx Toys as well as other classic toy companies)

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   Most people don't really know much about prototypes, or even what they are.  And, honestly, many just don't care.  The majority of collectors are interested in production items, and their many variations, but it is a fact that prototypes are a very important part of our toy history!

   The prototypes I will be speaking of are the primarily hand-made kind (whether carved with hand or powered tools).  There are a few exceptions (an example would be Johnny West's chaps, where the original clay prototype was too fragile to cast in plaster from, so they made a resin-like casting.  The casting is the only prototype of that piece that survives that I'm aware of, and if you notice the picture it is unique).  Most are one-of-a-kind; pieces of art.  Quite a lot of time, effort and expense went into making them.

   Some people (part of the Star Wars collecting community comes to mind, as well as others.  No offense intended.) call many things prototypes.  Yes, you CAN say that if a piece was made and used in the development of a figure, and is noticibly different from the final product, it is a prototype.  To me, I have a hard time considering laying down a large sum of money for a "prototype" of which there are 10 or more of the same exact piece in existance, all produced from a mold (usually the same mold that's used for the normal production figures, except that a copyright hasn't been added yet).  I have seen the phrase "came from a Kenner employee" so many times I really find it hard to believe that there were that many Kenner employees with access to prototypes, or that there were a few employees with a zillion prototypes!  AND, I really have no idea how anyone can buy unpainted/unfinished pieces or figures (nowadays GI Joe figures of the type glut the market, along with many of the newer action figure lines) that were basically just plucked (stolen?) from the place of manufacture (usually China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, etc.) and actually think they're buying prototypes???  All they are are heads or figures that haven't been painted or finished!!!  To me, the above items in question would fall into the category "pre-production sample" at most.  But that's just me; I'll stick with the good stuff.

   The original Louis Marx Company made some of their prototypes in-house, while others were made by companies such as Ferriot Brothers.  They were made of many different materials, and for various uses.  A prototype was needed in order to make a mold to produce an item in quantity.  Also, at times, they might have wanted to get an idea for an item and made "concept models" to see what they could manufacture.  Or, in some cases, they needed something to show potential buyers at the showroom or Toy Fair, and didn't have the finished product available at the time.  They could also use a prototype in some cases when they didn't have a final product available for their catalog photos.

   Some items never made it past the prototype stage for a variety of reasons.  Maybe there wasn't enough interest in the item; perhaps it would be too expensive to produce.  Or maybe it just wasn't "right" for the people at Marx.

   Marx prototypes were made from a variety of materials.  Those that seem most dominant being:  Clay, Tenite (a thermoplastic) and other hard plastics like styrene.  They also made prototypes out of:  Acetate plastic, wood, plaster, or a combination of these materials.

   •Clay, of course, would be easiest to work with, and could hold the most detail, but also was fragile.  Usually the clay was built up around a wire frame to give the item strength and stability.  Most clay prototypes haven't fared too well for the most part based on their fragile nature (especially over the years, as clay is prone to drying out, shrinking, and cracking).  And because after they served their original purpose (to make a mold), they generally were improperly stored or discarded.

   •Tenite, styrene and similar plastics on the other hand, were a most excellent choice for many prototypes.  Strong, durable, somewhat easy to work with; but sadly it seems that it was difficult to get as much detail using these plastics as it was with clay... in some cases there are actually prototypes found made primarily of Tenite, styrene, etc., but having some details made of clay added on.  Prototypes made of Tenite and styrene that have surfaced have aged remarkably well.

   One major problem with a lot of plastic prototypes (and actually many prototypes made of other materials) happened in the process of creating the molds to make the final product.  I will elaborate on the whole process at a later date, but in making molds for figures and such, they usually made a casting of the prototype using a very fine plaster.  After the plaster hardened, the prototype had to be removed, and although they coated the prototypes with a 'mold-release' agent, many times thin pieces (rifle barrels, swords, bow strings, etc.) got broken when the prototype was pried loose from it's plaster counterpart.  Larger componants have also been broken or seperated in the process (figures' bases, hands, feet, etc.).  In some cases, apparently excessive force was used in removing pieces from plaster, and prying them loose resulted in gouges or broken pieces.  Sadly, a lot of the small pieces that were broken back then have gotten lost, were discarded or have disappeared over the years.  The saddest part of all this is that all of these prototypes are actually carved and sculpted pieces of art... though after they served their usefulness were not really respected as such at the time.

   An interesting fact- I have collected Marx Toys prototypes for years now, and am very familiar with many pieces.  I've seen at least 500+ original figure prototypes.  I still find it hard to believe that there are so many "Marx playset and figure experts" out there that know so little about Marx prototypes.  Many think that 25-50+ years ago Marx had their prototypes made in a larger size (sometimes called a 2-up, etc.) and then pantographed down to it's production size (and they can be quite arrogant about it too)... NOT SO!  Most Marx prototypes for playset figures, action figures, accessories, and even many other toys were made in the 1-1 scale.  That being the prototype is about the SAME SIZE as the finished product.  (Yes, there is a slight size discrepency between a prototype and it's production piece, but that occurs with shrinkage in the whole mold-making and production process.  For a playset figure it may be as little as 1-3 mm).

   A major downturn in the Marx prototype saga occured after the company changed hands a few times and many (so many you could cry) prototypes were destroyed, damaged, and/or discarded under orders from the new owners (this was supposedly so they would not fall into competitor's hands!).  Thankfully there were some very intelligent people around at the time who managed to save quite a few pieces destined for the trash-heap.  More about them to come in the near future!

   Prototypes usually were not treasured, and were not thought of as items to preserve or protect, as there was in reality, no further actual use for them after serving their original intended purpose.  It's great that so many have survived so that we can now finally give them the respect and admiration they deserve.

   Now, to see a nice variety of vintage original prototypes, just look below at a very special slide show!  Thank you, as always, for your support.