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Portrait of a Mid-Century Plastics Pioneer

At a time when plastics were part of an exciting, unexplored future, manufacturer Charles Marcak boldly cleared a path forward for the miracle material.

October 17, 2022

7 Min Read
The Beton circus
Image courtesy of James S. Bucholz

James Bucholz

Editor’s note: James Bucholz first introduced us to Charles Marcak, in August in an article titled, “The Plant Manager Behind the Modern Plastics Industry.” It generated tremendous reader interest, and so we invited Bucholz back to tell us more about this toymaker, renaissance man, and forgotten plastics pioneer.

Modern civilization as we have come to know it would be unrecognizable in the absence of plastics. It isn’t hyperbole to say we couldn’t live without them. There was a time, however, when plastics were novel and their full commercial potential had yet to be realized. They were primarily part of an exciting, unexplored future and it was hands-on manufacturers like Charles Marcak who would lead the way into that future.

Marcak was a toymaker by trade, whose copyrights had been stolen from him early in his career. He was the president of Bergen Toy & Novelty Co. (Beton), but he had to answer to a board of directors who held those copyrights. In fact, Marcak’s career was marked by a two-front war he waged over his own creativity. Besides Beton, he also battled the military-industrial complex.

Forensic audit meets farce

Foregoing fame during his lifetime, Marcak appears to have meticulously deposited an interwoven collection of artifacts to help us retrace the action. In the space provided here, the most effective way to tell this remarkable story is as forensic audit meets rollicking farce. Consequently, I present the reconstructed Charles Marcak masterwork — “The Beton Circus” — completed in 1958, the year he shut down the company.

Although Marcak worked with several plastics companies from the 1930s through the 1950s, the focus here is Beton and Tenite. A product of what was then called the Tennessee Eastman Corp., a subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, Tenite is the brand name of a family of proprietary cellulose acetate thermoplastics originally derived from cotton and wood pulp. Introduced in 1929 and commercially available by 1932, Tenite was more stable and less flammable than cellulose nitrate, or celluloid, its immediate market predecessor. Tenite was soon used to make everything from steering wheels to toothbrushes. A new formulation, Tenite II (cellulose acetate butyrate or simply butyrate), appeared in 1938. Tenite II provided a higher mold finish, required less pressure in injection molding, and had lower viscosity than Tenite I. Marcak would master both formulations.

Simultaneously, Marcak masterfully outwitted the members of Beton’s board of directors. The company only made money sporadically, mostly during World War II, when metal was scarce and Beton was the only company making toy soldiers out of plastic. The name Beton itself is an intentional pun (pronounced “beaten”), going all the way back to 1938, when Marcak introduced it on the separately cast bases of his plastic toy figures, a purposefully wasteful and expensive design feature.

A frugal innovator

Charles Marcak may have been an innovator, but Beton never was. Marcak wielded frugality like a cudgel, insisting on buying scrap plastic that necessitated expensive painting, even though Tenite could be custom ordered in virtually all the colors of the spectrum. Even after Tenite became the more expensive alternative to the next generation of thermoplastics like polystyrene and polyethylene that appeared during the early post-war period, Marcak kept using it at Beton, portraying himself as an affable managerial dullard who resisted change.

The actual Beton circus playsets were introduced in 1952 using Tenite II. As shown in the two examples in the background of the diorama in the featured image at the the top of this page, Marcak put together unattractive sets, sometimes personally, with monochromatic color schemes and types of wildlife animals that were mostly ill-suited for circuses. He concealed this trickery behind colorful packaging that no one from the board of directors, comprised of absent New York money men, ever questioned.

As proof that painting was largely unnecessary, Marcak has helpfully provided the variegated gray tiger and panther in the upper left corner of the diorama, which I purchased together on eBay as part of a small set. Take away the painted stripes and the two cats are identical, precisely color highlighted in Tenite II on the legs, the ears, the tails, and the tips of the noses.

Other noteworthy pieces from a manufacturing perspective are four animals watching the same event. The rhinoceros, camel, and horse (which are likely Marcak’s personal specimens) were blow molded. They are surprisingly rugged, but aesthetically middling and still hand painted. Apparently Marcak found blow molding to be a toy making dead end. The black turkey with the red beak between the horse and the gray cats is hard rubber from Auburn (ARCO).

At Sun Rubber, Marcak experimented with wood-based cellulose composites, such as the hand painted ambulance shown in the second diorama shown below. Also featured in the second diorama is a humorous portrait that includes himself and his wife Elsie as western figures, along with Islyn Thomas of Thomas Toys, sporting a sombrero, all rendered in PVC, which was introduced in 1946.

A collection of artifacts believed to be part of Charles Marcak's oeuvre.

The military takes note

If his board of directors had originally viewed the wily genius Charles Marcak as some sort of exploitable profit center, the generals and admirals saw him as their ultimate secret weapon. Inside Marcak’s head were surely all kinds of revolutionary hardware designs and they wanted them badly. Early on, he was happy to oblige, designing, for instance, the Mack Militor artillery hauler that was in service with the Army until the latter part of the 1920s. However, in the face of the infamous 1932 Bonus Army that marched on Washington, Marcak soured on the armaments industry and sought to extricate himself from its grip. Nonetheless, during the 1930s he worked on the development of the Marmon-Herrington “tankette” for the Marine Corps, which saw limited service in places like Alaska and the Dutch East Indies.

During World War II, Marcak could have avoided military service by trading on some of his advanced plastics technology, but he didn’t. Instead, he opted to serve in uniform as a design engineer. He designed ambulances for the Army and all manner of craft for the Navy. At the end of the war, Marcak was probably involved in Operation Paperclip, where he analyzed the military aircraft captured from Germany. He likely worked on the atomic bomb tests on the Bikini Atoll in 1946. Marcak always worked as part of a design team to develop existing technology, but he never gave the military-industrial complex their much-desired wonder weapons. He was still designing submarines for the French Navy as late as 1955.

This brings us to the diorama’s advertisement for the 1953 Solar Cadet. Billed as a combination “kiddie ride” and target game, in reality it was the world’s first video arcade console, featuring “New Plastic-Type Paint” and a “Visual Screen [made of] ¼-in.” Plexiglass.” Evidently derived from a combat flight simulator that Marcak collaborated on for the Navy, it was the harbinger of an entire industry. It was also Marcak acting as his own two-way Trojan Horse, slipping in and then out, taking valuable military technology with him.

In the 1967 motion picture The Graduate, actor Walter Brooke delivered the now-legendary line to actor Dustin Hoffman that the optimal career path of the future could be boiled down to a single word, “plastics.” It was being played for laughs even at the time, because plastics were already an integral part of the present, thanks in large part to the pioneering work of visionaries like Marcak. By 1953 in fact, to master toymaker Charles Marcak, who helped make plastics commonplace, the future was once again about something entirely new — video games.

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