Toy Story: The Historical Playset in Post-War America

Professor Jeffrey Hammond lectured on the history of his collection of Louis Marx toys. by Brendan O’Hara
Professor Jeffrey Hammond lectured on the history of his collection of Louis Marx toys. by Brendan O’Hara

For Jeffrey Hammond, collecting toys from his childhood became an expensive way to procrastinate. Hammond’s Oct. 2 lecture on the 1950’s American “boy’s toy” playset was held in Cole Cinema and dedicated to a baby girl born that morning to a member of the English faculty.

Hammond explained that his collection of Louis Marx toys happened by chance: he purchased them all off E-bay while he should have been doing more important work.  After a few years, he found himself with over 1,000 plastic figures and an amazing amount of knowledge about them.

Louis Marx was once called the Henry Ford of toys.  On December 12, 1955, he was on the cover of Time magazine along with Santa.  Santa was in the background with a slight scowl on his face while Marx smiled jovially in front of him.  Marx was so well known that in one year he spent only $312 on advertisements despite the fact that he was in the Golden Age of Advertisement.

Because his playsets only cost around $5 or $7, they were available even to the working class.  Any boy that wanted to could play with a Marx set.  The sets had an outsider’s insight into America.  Marx was an immigrant and thus saw America as a country that always came out on top, despite historical facts.  He once told his daughter, “You are an American, do your best.”  The toy sets represented a war between “us” and “them”.  By allowing young boys to control their own World Wars or Alamos, Marx gave America another chance to win and to come out on top.  They were able to “replace a troubled past with a privileged future,” Hammond explained.

Boys lived vicariously through the toy sets.  However, the only sets available were of wars.  Hammond remarked that this may be why boys learned to play rough.  Some of the toy sets were of historical events but others were of fake events making fact and fiction blur together.  Kids “don’t care if a story is true, as long as it’s good,” said Hammond.

“These were just toys,” Hammond said, yet even with toys the winner wrote the history.

The lecture was part of the Reeves Lecture series, which is provided by the George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts.  Professor of English, Jeffrey Hammond, has held the Reeves Chair since 2001.  Hammond has been recognized on a national level for his numerous books.  In his work This Place Where We Are, he depicted Saint Mary’s City, including the College where he has been teaching since 1990.