NEW YORK — Among the most beloved characters to emerge from a comic strip is Popeye the Sailor Man, who transcended the printed page to become a pop-culture icon. A star of the comics page, a television cartoon series and a 1980 movie starring Robin Williams, Popeye is famous for his love of spinach and his lanky girlfriend, Olive Oyl, as much as his intolerance for bullies.
The creation of cartoonist Elzie Crisler Segar, known professionally as E.C. Segar, Popeye first appeared as a minor character in a daily comic strip, Thimble Theatre, through the King Features Syndicate in January 1929 and later gained his own comic strip. Olive Oyl had appeared in Thimble Theatre since 1919 and she joined Popeye in his main strip along with the hamburger-loving Wimpy and Popeye’s arch nemesis, Bluto (whose name was later changed to Brutus due to copyright fears). Another source of Popeye’s fame was his enduring catchphrases, such as “I yam what I yam” and “That’s all I can stands, I can stands no more.”
New Jersey toy maker J. Chein was first awarded a license to make toys based on Popeye, and some of its dolls and lithographed tin wind-up toys are favorites of collectors. A few other manufacturers around the world have produced Popeye toys but it was “toy king” Louis Marx in New York City, which King Features awarded a license for Popeye, that offered the Popeye toys collectors seek most ardently.
Popeye toys are especially appealing because of the character’s personality. Typically mild-mannered most of the time, Popeye becomes a muscled hero when he chugs a can of spinach after he sees Bluto misbehaving or manhandling Olive Oyl. He is usually pictured with his pipe, and some of the earliest toys even show him smoking — a big no-no today. A Linemar tin-litho battery-operated Smoking Popeye toy earned $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019 at Dan Morphy Auctions. While Marx made a number of Popeye toys to be sold as part of its main brand line, rising costs prompted it to move most of its Popeye products to its Japanese subsidiary, Linemar, which made toys sold in the United States and elsewhere.
Marx’s Linemar mechanical tin toys were a big hit, such as a Popeye the Acrobat mechanical wind-up toy. Said to be one of the most elusive of all Popeye toys, an example that retained its original box sold for $4,100 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Dan Morphy Auctions. The colorful box depicts several stars from the Popeye universe, including Wimpy, Olive Oyl and Sweet Pea.
While some serious collectors might argue that the Marx Popeye toys were not as refined as the Chein toys, they are full of personality and show the character’s quirks. Popeye was best known for his squinting eyes, huge forearms and his ever-present pipe. The Popeye toys that bring the highest prices are invariably those that still have their original boxes, which boast eye-catching and colorful graphics that make them collectible all on their own.
A tin lithograph battery-operated Smoking Popeye toy from Linemar had a lot going for it, in terms of collectibility. It depicts him sitting on an oversized can of spinach, the source of his strength, and his corncob pipe lights up when in use — a detail which, of course, would not pass muster today. An example that came with its original box brought $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019 at Dan Morphy Auctions.
Also of note is a very unusual Marx Popeye and His Motorcycle Express toy that achieved $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in October 2021 at Milestone Auctions. Based on the toy known as the Mystic Motorcycle, it is hand-painted, sits on a 3-wheel platform, and has an opening cargo box that says “Popeye and His Motorcycle Express.” The driver barely resembles the classic character whom most audiences would recognize, but the design served as a concept for another Popeye toy.
Popeye has always been touted as a “sailor man,” but that didn’t stop toymakers from placing him in all sorts of machines, chief among them a Linemar tin lithograph wind-up Popeye Air-O-Plane. The toy, which is marked “King Features Syndicate,” made $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2020 at Dan Morphy Auctions, and is said to be one of the rarest and most valuable Popeye toys.
In addition, Linemar produced a Popeye and Olive Oyl Tank that currently holds the highest price result on LiveAuctioneers for a Popeye toy. It has a tenuous connection to a Paramount Pictures cartoon short from 1936 titled I’m in the Army Now, in which Popeye joins the Army to impress Olive Oyl (although he is not pictured in a tank). The toy sold for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2015 at Dan Morphy Auction and included the original box. Similar to a toy Superman tank, the plaything portrays Popeye holding up the tank while Olive Oyl emerges from the turret.
While the days of kids growing up watching early black-and-white Popeye cartoons that entertained previous generations may be long gone, the humble hero remains a fixture of pop culture. He’s strong to the “finich” and still eating his spinach as part of the MeTV Saturday Morning Cartoons lineup , along with his pals Olive Oyl, Swee’Pea, Wimpy… and, of course, arch-nemesis Bluto.
# # #