This story is about the president of a plastic toy company, Charles Marcak. The story stems from my discovery of what I initially thought was the first production set of plastic army men, its creation. (These are technically test pieces, as I’ll explain below.) Both specimens are captivating and, in their gas masks, almost quizzical when posed together and their gazes slightly off. In full size, they would be welcome in any world-class art museum. Despite my first impression of them, which still holds, I was convinced that beneath the gaiety also lurked Marcak’s dark and brooding rumination on the Great War. With this in mind, and with all due omen and humility, I originally envisioned this article as the final word on the art of the lost generation.
As far as the technical aspects are concerned, I can note that the first plastic toy soldiers were probably made with imported Franz Braun Isoma injection molding machines using Tenite I (cellulose acetate), just like the first plastic toy cars. plastic. Beyond that, Injection molding of plasticsMarcak’s longtime protege and collaborator Islyn Thomas’ seminal 1947 work provides all there is to know.
Charles Franklin Marcak, born in 1896, answers the question of what would happen if Leonardo da Vinci’s intellectual heir arrived in modern times. A prodigy, Marcak was designing toys by the age of 11 and full-size vehicles as a teenager. He was a true Renaissance genius with countless well-heeled patrons, most notably the War Department. He held commissions as an army colonel and navy captain, serving in both branches as a design engineer.
A granular worldview
As a craftsman, he seems to have no equal in our time or any other. He was also an accomplished strategic planner and businessman, who thrived in the corporate world of regimented compartmentalization, tabulation, and encapsulation, which suited his complex, clockwork mind perfectly. 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 distinct and unique granule, and possessing its own potential viscosity, allowing him to be refined, reshaped and improved upon, if ‘molded’ correctly.
A dominant design movement in the United States during Marcak’s lifetime was applied futurism, due to the requirement to develop new manufacturing methods to use new materials such as thermoplastics. Marcak was in a unique position, with its wealth, technical skills and multitude of business connections, to assemble the components in a practical way, importing or building the necessary machinery and recruiting the teams of qualified engineers who would be responsible for manage everything.
Along with these more publicized technical advances – I summarize the era as that of the manometer – it was also the dawn of the era of behavioral sciences, especially in applied areas like scientific business management. As a child, Marcak himself had been nudged and prodded by great learned minds to see what made him tick. As a lifelong toy maker, he has developed an unparalleled understanding of consumer behavior. If nothing else, the reconstructed diorama reminds us that Marcak understood how much Americans love the show.
Marcak was already a well-established toy manufacturer in 1933, when it began researching and developing plastics in earnest. By then he had learned that selling successful toys was a game of thumbs.
Thermoplastics as a vector of salvation
Creatively, that meant making each toy its own standalone gem instead of just relying on a single splashy Christmas hit. If a deeper artistic assessment of the war itself was not apparent, Marcak’s embarrassment at his own indulgent commercial success throughout the Roaring Twenties was. In fact, part of his early fortune also came from the 1916 Mack AC cargo truck, adopted by the military during World War I. Additionally, he was making more money than ever in the early years of the Great Depression, often catering to the high end of the toy market. Marcak was ashamed of his own stale creativity and what he perceived to be war profiteers. He began to consider thermoplastics as a way to save both his artistic heritage and his immortal soul. In 1932, he reinvented himself as the “middle class at best” owner of a new company, Marcak Toy & Novelty, which would specialize in plastics.
First to market was the Kilgore line of plastic toy vehicles named, with admirably self-aware swagger, “Jewels for Playthings”, which debuted at the New York Toy Fair in 1937. For Bergen Toy & Novelty (Beton), whose parent company, Metal Cast Products, had cheated him out of his copyrights early in his career, Marcak would slow development of the plastic toy soldier, giving him a quiet start to the market in 1938.
In Marcak’s symbolic personal set, pictured below, only one piece is really an army man, the malformed 68mm “Infantryman with Gas Mask”, a product of Plastic Toys Inc. introduced in 1946. Then there’s the Painted Beton Toy Rifleman, the very last of its kind. The others are concrete specimens. The bugle did not come out in 68mm khaki with silver paint. The bayonets of the two 70mm infantrymen actually differ by exactly one millimeter in length, making them technically unique “rifle” and “shotgun” test variations, emphasizing, with its sly humor, the total mastery of Marcak de Tenite, the first modern multi-purpose consumer plastic.
Image courtesy of James S. Bucholz
|Charles Marcak’s signature personal set. From left to right: The first man in the Plastic Toys army, the last Beton toy soldier and three Beton test tubes.|
The first production plastic army man
The whole proves that Beton was never the home of the first men of the army, but only of the last painted tin soldiers. Marcak left these, along with the despicable term “doughboys,” in the form of these two test tubes, to Beton. The first production army man was made by Plastic Toys Inc., as ordered by its own creator through extremely clever design technique, and designed as a soldieras Charles Marcak himself was proud to be.
Marcak’s most crucial legacy to the plastics industry, however, would be how he retained it in the private sector. He never created a centralized research or manufacturing powerhouse that would attract unwanted attention. Instead, he spread the production know-how among new and existing small manufacturers. As for the newly rebranded Ministry of Defense, it lined up as another paying customer.
In 1959, sensing that dark forces backed by financial interests were closing in on him, perhaps finally becoming aware of his elaborate board games, or for having been privy to too many government secrets, Marcak faked his own death. In the end, he came out clean and lived happily ever after with his wife Elsie.
I gave up my efforts to make a grandiose criticism of the lost generation. As he matured, sculptor Charles Marcak rolled up his sleeves and continued his career. The doughboys would be his only artistic statement about the Great War, the gas mask truck in the diorama a signature exclamation point (in this case, eight of them) that the joke was complete.
I ended up where I started, with two casual infantrymen, both unflinchingly awaiting their return to action. However, the hero of those once-popular old Tom Swift adventure stories better captures Marcak’s ever-present joy.
“It was like backing into a bayonet,” Tom said ostensibly.