Saturday, May 29, 2021

Best birthday ever. The Marx Giant Blue and Gray Playset

This is a testimonial to not only a great playset, but also to great parents.

Today is my birthday.  In 1962, for my tenth birthday, my
parents got me a watershed gift - the Louis Marx Giant Blue and Gray playset.  My mother used to make birthday gifts into a treasure hunt where she would leave clues all over the property, one leading to the other, and finally to the present.  We had twenty acres, much of it wooded, so it was quite a treasure hunt.  The very last clue lead me to our front porch, and there it was in all of it's glory, unobscured by wrapping paper, a beautiful, lavishly designed box, containing the entire Civil War. something that had captivated me since I was about six years old.

I played with it endlessly.

Over the years I have been picking up, here and there, individual pieces of the Giant, with little idea of where that would lead.  The pieces were outgrowing one box after another as the modest collection grew.

Then I encountered a guy on ebay who makes beautiful replica playset boxes.  He had the Giant Blue and Gray in two sizes...I went for the big one, and I'm glad that I did.

The Giant had 330 pieces, which to my eyes was enormous, and compared to other playsets of the era, the Giant WAS enormous, especially through a kid's eyes.  Looking back on it, as an adult, I realized that for as magnificent as the Giant was, it was actually much smaller than I remembered it.  So I decided, in my recreation, to amass enough pieces to make the set match my childhood perception of what was the enormity of the set.  The result is that my recreation is at least two-thirds larger than the original. (do click on the photos for a larger view)

The original had roughly 70 yankees and an equal number of rebels.  My recreation has a little over two hundred per side.

Marx had been making Blue and Gray playsets for a few years before the Giant was released, so my Giant had the usual Marx figures, plus...

new "Centennial" figures to mark the ongoing 100th anniversary of the Civil War.  The "Centennials" included these fabulous sets of stretcher-bearers taking the wounded to...

this wonderful horse-drawn ambulance, an item exclusive to the Giant which was only available that one year and only through Montgomery Wards.  So this was truly something special.   

It had a cool three-piece exploding bunker, which, with the assistance of a mousetrap-like mechanism, blew apart when a cannonball hit the target.  These seated soldiers are about to go into orbit.

Louis Marx - dubbed "The Toy King" by TIME magazine - was a very cost-conscious businessman but he wanted to have lots and lots of pieces to demonstrate the value of this set to parents (the cost was a staggering $12.00 in 1962 dollars) so he included two sprues, one in black and one in silver, of a whole bunch of detachable accessories, swords, pistols, belts, canteens, rifles, etc. 

There were somewhere near 35 of these accessories per sprue.  As they were all injected molded onto the two sprues  the production cost was only for two pieces - the sprues - but the Toy King got to tout all of the little attached items as individual pieces in the total count.  

The set came with two seacoast mortars, a large one and a small one.  The large one actually fired mortar balls with a very powerful spring and trigger mechanism.  In later Blue and Gray sets, the new child safety laws saw all of the mortars and cannons issued without the firing mechanism. After much fruitless searching, I was finally able to find, on ebay, an operational mortar, (middle-right) still as powerful as I remembered it to be.

The original Giant came with a fabulous four-horse limber and firing cannon. As the photo indicates I went the Giant two better.

Dead center is the little three-piece folding army cot that so fascinated my mother...she was a real fan of this set too.  It was my mother that guided my interest in the upcoming Civil War Centennial by the time I was five or so.  I still have a couple of crayon drawings of Civil War battles that I did when I was in first-grade.

In the original, there were all of these cool little basket-weave pattern bags, each labeled with what was inside - "cannons", "horses", "soldiers" etc.  This is an original that contained the four Civil War luminary figures of...

Lee, Grant, Lincoln, and Jeff Davis.  I chose to add to the pantheon, the Great Man himself!

Included was this little booklet, which I pored over.

Just like Hollywood!

Note number 7...this is when some people were still burning coal; and I had many pieces from the area of what had been our coal-chute.

When Magic Marxie was around, fun was soon to follow.

 Here it is in it's splendor on the Toy solder table.   It doesn't depict any battle, it's just an array to show the scope of it.

I have four of these beautiful twelve-pounder Napoleons, two shoot, and two are post-child safety laws.

The plantation house is made of tin litho.

I was enthralled by this down-sized Burnside Bridge, and fifty years later I found myself working as a Park Ranger at Antietam National Battlefield.

(Me, with a tour group, overlooking Burnside Bridge)

The sculpting, detail, and animation of these figures is wonderful.

Of course there are some inaccuracies, such as few of the soldiers have cartridge boxes, but this detail was cheerfully lost on ten-year-old me.

Remember the Plantation house?

As a kid, I loved the dead horse.

The "falling rider" is one of Marx's most famous figures.

The original giant came with four sections of worm-rail fence, I have accumulated twenty for this recreation.

Unlike most collectors, I'm not so interested in color matching my figures, as long as they are from the Blue and Gray or Giant Blue and Gray sets.  The last iteration of the Marx Civil War line were the "Heritage" sets produced for Sears in the early 1970s.  I don't collect those as the plastic, finish, and color, are very different from the earlier sets.

The tin-litho flags are colorful and accurate.

When I was setting this up I was reminded of a childhood frustration...the dreaded "domino effect."

I think that the original set has about eight marchers on each side.

Marx made these very cool earthen redoubts with an embrasure to poke a cannon barrel through.  I have three of them for this set.

Altogether, Marx included three types of projectile-firing guns.

Today I opened a birthday present from my wife and it contained enough Marx cavalry horses so that all of these guys could ride into battle.

The bulk of the recreation project happened over the past eight months, that is when I found a guy on ebay who makes beautiful replicas of Marx playset boxes.  He makes it very clear that he doesn't sell the contents...only the boxes.  It is a real beauty and I have purchased others from him that will be detailed in later posts to this blog.

His boxes do not include the dividers, but they were simple to make.  I also aded the little finger holes on either side of the lid.

Everything fits, but with little room to spare.

Welcome to my world, and happy birthday to me.

Soldier on!



The Good Soldier Svjek said...

Marvelous collection .

Mark, Man of TIN said...

What wise words are in the battle effects leaflet?

Ed and Bettina Berg said...

That is a drop-dead gorgeous set Mannie!

Dr. L. Murphy Smith said...

Wow kazowie! Great story. God bless you. :)

Dr. L. Murphy Smith said...

Really great post! Brought back lots of memories of my Blue and Gray set. My dad had to confiscate the top to lay on underneath our car while he did auto repairs. I was disappointed but understood my dad needed it more than me. I was in the 1st grade. A different world.

Chuck Mason said...

This is a very nice blog. Enjoyed it greatly. I owned a Blue and gray set as a child and loved it!
Chuck Mason

Archduke Piccolo said...

I can well imagine your long-time enthusiasm for what I'm looking at here. Tremendous scope for campaigns and wars - and great just to have. Thanks for sharing!

Jerseyman said...

Fabulous. I got mine for Christmas 1960 or so. I was 9. I found it hidden under the bed. I carefully unwrapped everything, played with it and as carefully put it all back...even the brass Staples. The temptation being extreme, I did it at least once more before the great morning. Oh I loved that set. I lived near Freedom land in the Bronx, NY. They had a Civil War ride that fired many childhood imaginings. 30 years reenacting!

Tim Gow said...

That's a BIG box of stuff! And I'm sure you need it all.....

Dave B said...

Wow! I'd have envied you as a kid. I envy you now. Nothing like that in my part of the world when I was a kid.

Jubilo said...

Superb post-thank you.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the post. I still have most of the remaining pieces of my Civil War set which I received for Christmas 1963. This launched my own lifelong interest in the War and all US history. Great post and site!