plastic toys

This story is about the president of a plastic toy company, Charles Marcak. The tale springs from my discovery of what I initially thought was the first production set of plastic army men, his creation. (They are technically test pieces, as I will explain below.) The two specimens are captivatingly jaunty and, in their gas masks, almost quizzical when posed together and their gazes slightly offset. In life-size, they would be welcome in any world-class art museum. Notwithstanding my first impression of them, which still holds, I was convinced that lurking beneath the mirth was also Marcak’s dark, brooding rumination on the Great War. With that in mind, and with all due portent and humility, I originally envisioned this article as the definitive final word on the art of the Lost Generation.

Regarding the technical aspects, I have room to note that the first plastic toy soldiers were likely manufactured with imported Franz Braun Isoma injection molding machines using Tenite I (cellulose acetate), as were the first plastic toy cars. Beyond that, Injection Molding of Plastics, the seminal 1947 work of Islyn Thomas, Marcak’s protégé and longtime collaborator, provides everything else there is to know.

Charles Franklin Marcak, born 1896, answers the question of what would happen if the intellectual heir of Leonardo Da Vinci arrived in modern times. A prodigy, Marcak was designing toys by age 11 and full-sized vehicles by his teens. He was a true renaissance genius with countless well-heeled patrons, most notably the War Department. He held commissions as both an Army Colonel and a Navy Captain, serving in both branches as a design engineer.

A granular worldview

As an artisan, he seems to have no equal in our time or any other. He was also a consummate strategic planner and businessman, who thrived in the corporate world of regimented compartmentalization, tabulation, and encapsulation, which perfectly suited his intricate, clockwork-like mind. The granular pellet of raw plastic molding material is an incredibly apt metaphor for Charles Marcak’s worldview. He saw everything and everyone, especially himself, as a granule that was distinct and unique, and possessing its own potential viscosity, allowing it to be refined, reshaped, and improved, if ‘molded’ properly.

A dominant design movement in the United States during Marcak’s lifetime was applied futurism, owing to the requirement that new methods of manufacturing had to be developed to make use of new materials like thermoplastics. Marcak was uniquely positioned, with his wealth, technical skills, and multitude of business connections, to bring the components together to practical fruition, by importing or constructing the necessary machinery and recruiting the skilled engineering teams that would be tasked with running it all.

Along with these more high-profile technical advances — I summarize the era as that of the pressure gauge — it was also the dawn of the age of the behavioral sciences, particularly in applied fields like scientific business management. As a child, Marcak himself had been poked and prodded by great scholarly minds to see what made him tick. As a lifelong toymaker, he developed an unsurpassed understanding of consumer behavior. If nothing else, the reconstructed diorama reminds us that Marcak understood how much Americans love spectacle.

Marcak was already a well-established toymaker by 1933, when he began plastics research and development in earnest. By then he had learned that successful toy selling was a game of inches.

Thermoplastics as a vehicle of salvation

Creatively, this meant making every toy its own self-contained gem instead of relying solely on a single, splashy hit at Christmas. If some deeper artistic assessment of the war itself wasn’t apparent, Marcak’s embarrassment over his own indulgent commercial success throughout the Roaring Twenties was. In fact, part of his early fortune had also come from the 1916 Mack AC cargo truck, adopted by the Army during World War I. Moreover, he was making more money than ever in the opening years of the Great Depression, often catering to the higher end of the toy market. Marcak felt ashamed of his own stale creativity and of what he perceived as war profiteering. He began to view thermoplastics as a way to save both his artistic legacy and his immortal soul. In 1932, he re-invented himself as the “at best middle class” owner of a new company, Marcak Toy & Novelty, that would specialize in plastics.

First to the market was the Kilgore line of plastic toy vehicles named, with admirably self-aware swagger, “Jewels for Playthings,” debuting at the 1937 New York toy fair. For Bergen Toy & Novelty (Beton), whose parent, Metal Cast Products, had cheated him out of his copyrights early in his career, Marcak would slow walk the development of the plastic toy soldier, giving it a muted market debut in 1938.

In Marcak’s symbolic personal set, shown below, only one piece is truly an army man, the malformed 68-mm “Infantryman with Gas Mask,” a product of Plastic Toys Inc. introduced in 1946. Then there is the painted Beton toy rifleman, the very last of his kind. The others are Beton test pieces. The bugler wasn’t released in 68-mm khaki with silver paint. The bayonets of the two 70-mm infantrymen actually differ in length by exactly one millimeter, making them technically one-of-a-kind “rifle” and “shotgun” test variations, highlighting, along with his sly humor, Marcak’s utter mastery of Tenite, the first modern all-purpose consumer plastic.

Image courtesy of James S. BucholzPlastic Toys' army man
Charles Marcak’s symbolic personal set. Left to right: The first Plastic Toys army man, last Beton toy soldier, and three Beton test pieces.

The first production plastic army man

The set proves that Beton was never the home of the first army men, merely of the last painted toy soldiers. Marcak left those, along with the despicable term “doughboys,” in the form of those two test pieces, at Beton. The first production army man was manufactured by Plastic Toys Inc., as ordained by its own creator through a supremely clever design technicality, and styled as a trooper, as Charles Marcak himself was proud to be.

Marcak’s more crucial legacy to the plastics industry, however, would be how he kept it in the private sector. He never created one centralized research or manufacturing powerhouse that would attract unwelcome attention. Instead, he sprinkled production know-how among smaller manufacturers, both new and existing. As far as the newly rechristened Department of Defense, it got in line as just another paying customer.

In 1959, sensing that dark forces backed by moneyed interests were closing in on him, perhaps getting wise at last to his elaborate corporate shell games, or for being privy to too many top government secrets, Marcak faked his own death. Ultimately, he got away clean and lived happily ever after with his wife Elsie.

I abandoned my effort to craft a grandiose critique of the Lost Generation. As he matured, sculptor Charles Marcak rolled up his sleeves and moved on with his career. The doughboys would be his only artistic statement on the Great War, the truckload of gas masks in the diorama a signature exclamation point (in this case, eight of them) that the joke was complete.

I ended up where I had started, with two jaunty infantrymen, both unflinchingly awaiting their return to action. The hero of those old, once-popular Tom Swift adventure stories captures Marcak’s ever-present mirth better, however.

“It was like backing into a bayonet,” Tom said pointedly.

 

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