Museum Artifacts: TootsieToy Die-Cast Cars: No. 4655 Ford Model A Coupe and No. 4629 Sedan, c. 1928
Made By: Dowst Brothers / Dowst Manufacturing Co., 4537 W. Fulton St., Chicago, IL [West Garfield Park]
Chicago-based brothers Charles and Samuel Dowst were arguably as foundational to the toy car industry as Henry Ford was to the real thing. It was work on a significantly smaller scale, obviously, but it was also refreshingly devoid of pro-Nazi sympathies.
Within a few years of the first Ford Model-T hitting the streets of Chicago in 1908, the Dowst Bros., along with Samuel's son Theodore Dowst, seized on a simple and affordable way to miniaturize that revolutionary vehicle and those that followed it—using the latest in die-cast molding technology to create a brand new type of toy/collectible for a car-crazy country. The "TootsieToy" line, which also included everything from mini trains and planes to doll furniture and candy box prizes, would eventually become—by some estimates—the most popular toy brand of the Depression years, giving kids from any background an affordable and tangible version of an otherwise out-of-reach reality.
The two primary Dowst artifacts in our museum collection—a No. 4655 Coupe and a No. 4629 Sedan—were both produced from the mid 1920s to the early '30s, and were popular models based on contemporary, real-life Ford automobiles. They were part of a wider series patented by Theodore Dowst, who started with the firm as a bookkeeper in 1906, but would gradually become an innovative gizmo designer and, eventually, company president.
[One of Theodore Dowst's toy car patents, dating from 1928, likely applied to the mechanics used in the construction of both vintage TootsieToy vehicles from our museum collection]
It was Theodore Dowst’s own daughter Catherine, aka “Toots,” who supposedly inspired the use of the name “TootsieToy” for the company’s early pewter dollhouse furniture sets (Catherine was an illegitimate child, the result of Teddy canoodling with a Dowst Company secretary, and it permanently damaged his relationship with his father, but that’s neither here nor there).
The TootsieToy brand name didn’t actually become a registered trademark until 1924, and for quite a few years after, many of the company's toy cars still carried no such identifying marks. In the public consciousness, though, the brand name quickly eclipsed the Dowst MFG Co. name, to the point where even some folks who collect old Tootsie Toys might have little to no knowledge of the original Chicago-based business that produced them by the millions.
[1929 advertisement geared toward toy retailers]
I. Early Years: The Dowsts' Dirty Laundry
So where exactly did these Dowst fellas come from? Had they been whimsical toy shop owners before striking die-cast gold? Passionate automobile aficionados?
No on both counts. The original Dowst Brothers were actually devoted men of the laundry trade. Yes, that’s laundry, as in the laundering of clothes, dry cleaning, ironing, tailoring, all that jazz. Not only did they work in the industry—running their own cleaning facilities in Chicago—they were also leading voices within the high ranks of the launderers’ elite.
Way back in 1878, when Charles Dowst was just 26, he founded the Dowst Brothers Publishing Company, which launched the first laundry trade magazine in the world—the National Laundry Journal. It soon became the insider’s bible for sophisticated laundromat owners near and far, staying in circulation for more than 40 years.
Even the Dowsts' unexpected foray into trinket-making never fully shifted their focus from their first love. In fact, some of the company's earliest die-cast creations were inspired not by fancy motorcars, but by the tools of the laundering business.
As the folklore goes, younger brother Samuel Dowst was visiting the legendary 1893 Columbian Exposition when he first saw an early Linotype typesetting machine in operation and caught a jolt of inspiration. A machine that could make molds for letters could also, in theory, make other interesting shapes that might be utilized in the Dowsts' everyday enterprise.
And so, Sam convinced Charles to invest in a casting machine of their own, and—using a zinc or tin base—they started making tiny buttons and cufflinks, among other small accessories, for their friends and business partners. These items were initially intended as promotional handouts, much like the collector cards that the National Laundry Journal was already distributing [such as the laundering cherub pictured above]. As popular demand grew, however, and as the Dowsts continued to expand the array of different tiny objects they could produce, a whole new business was born.
By the dawn of the 20th century, the manufacturing of "metal novelties" was now the Dowst Brothers' central moneymaker, as they offered their Linotype services to confectioners, penny arcades, and the like. A factory at 9 Ann Street (on the location now known as 120 N. Racine Ave.) was devoted to this work, and Samuel's son, the aforementioned Theodore, was hired to help keep the books.
From the looks of things, though, Charles Dowst—despite his booming success as a novelty / toy making mogul—never really deviated from his life's true passion: laundry. It’s hard to find any quotes from the guy about TootsieToy or its thousands of products, but as the founder and longtime editor of the National Laundry Journal, Charles was never at a loss for words when it came to the cleaning of fabrics.
In 1919, just two months before his death at the age of 67, Charles published a compendium of articles, short stories, and poems pulled from the long history of The National Laundry Journal. He called it Second Suds Sayings, and it featured a few of his own writings, including a piece titled “Memories of Long Ago”—a mix of waxing nostalgic about laundry’s golden age and appreciating how far his industry had come.
“If some of the old timers who have passed away could come back to life and see the improvements the trade has made in the last thirty or forty years, they would think that in their day they knew nothing in regard to conducting a laundry. I recall my first visit to the ‘Quaker City,’ in the early eighties, when the proprietor of the leading laundry took great pride in showing me through his establishment, dilating on the quality of work that he turned out. It was excellent and he was justified in feeling proud of it, especially the collar and cuff work; but if he could see a late model starching machine and one of the modern dry rooms today, he would think that he was in fairyland.”
Charles Dowst was a tragic figure in some ways. In 1903, his wife Jennie was one of the 600 victims of the Iroquois Theatre disaster—the deadliest single building fire in U.S. history. Just months earlier, Charles had appeared in the business section of the Chicago Tribune, as he was completing the purchase of the land that would become the Dowst Bros. factory on Ann Street. In an eerie bit of foreshadowing, that news appeared side-by-side with another “Notable Deal of the Week”— an investor named Otto Young acquiring the real estate occupied by the soon-to-be-opened Iroquois Theatre.
[Chicago Tribune, June 28, 1903: Charles Dowst made the news alongside an Iroquois Theatre investor, months before Dowst's wife died in a tragic fire in the same theater]
II. Monopolizing the Business
One of the Dowsts' early clients in Chicago, a Norwegian named Ole Odegard, was the proprietor of the Flat Iron Laundry at 3629 N. Halsted Street. Hearing of the brothers’ fancy Linotype device, he personally requested they make him a unique metal charm for his business—one he could give to patrons to earn their loyalty. The Dowsts obliged, crafting several tokens that included a flat-iron (for obvious reasons), a tiny thimble, and—for reasons lost to time—a wee Scottie dog. These tokens were eventually produced in such large numbers, and given away so liberally, that they took on a new life of their own, often used as makeshift pieces in primitive board games of the late 19th and early 20th century. You can see, naturally, where this is leading.
By 1911, Dowst Bros. had unveiled its first toy car, a generic limousine model, which was followed a few years later by their first miniaturized take on a real automobile: the Model T. It was part of an expanded campaign spearheaded by Theodore Dowst, who ultimately may have been a bigger architect of the company’s success than either his father or his uncle. Ted cast a wide net, helping to design not only mini vehicles, but a whole lot of other random diecast novelties: whistles, tops, telephones, animals, etc.
In the years after World War I, with both Charles and Samuel now deceased, Theodore started working on designing and patenting new modern model cars to meet the rabid demand, with designs from Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Mack Trucks, and others joining the existing Fords. The sedan in our museum collection, which is sometimes referred to by collectors as the "Yellow Cab" (even though it came in several colors), was promoted this way in Dowst's 1925 catalog: "A real masterpiece in miniature automobiles. We have tried to overlook no details and this Sedan is a car we are proud of. Bright color enameled finish on body and movable disc wheels in gold bronze. This number should be in every dealer's stock."
Around this same period, in 1926, Theodore made a bold, risky, but ultimately fruitful business decision—agreeing to sell the company to one of its longtime Chicago trinket rivals, the Cosmo MFG Co.,—makers of the miniature toys in Cracker Jack boxes. The deal played out more as a merger, as Cosmo owner Nathan Shure agreed to keep Theodore on as company president. The new combined entity would be known, interestingly enough, as the Dowst Manufacturing Company—with a new headquarters at 4537 W. Fulton Street in West Garfield Park. Ted would remain in his position until his own death in 1945, after helping turn the TootsieToy brand into a giant name in the toy market.
[The Dowst MFG Co. moved into this building at 4537 W. Fulton Street in the late '20s and stayed there into the '50s]
The 1930s, rather off-trend, might have been Ted Dowst's finest hour. In 1931, he was elected president of the Toy Manufacturers Association of the USA, and by 1933, he'd rolled out the influential new Graham Series of model cars, with a three-piece construction (separate body, chassis, and radiator grill castings) that was quickly adopted by international rivals like Dinky Toys and Marklin. New rubber tires replaced the all-metal wheels of the '20s, and the introduction of the zinc alloy Zamak resulted in "lighter, sturdier castings," according to the book TootsieToys: World's First Diecast Models.
Then came a fortuitous association with a certain recognizable board game franchise.
The first version of Parker Brothers’ “Monopoly,” released in 1935, had come with wooden dowels as playing pieces. But when the game was repackaged in 1937 with new metal tokens made by the Dowst MFG Co., players found the company's familiar diecast thimble and iron now included among the avatars. To millions of Monopoly players in the decades since, these were the oddball game pieces—perceived perhaps as references to the working class in a game about wealth? But in truth, it was just a manufacturer's inside joke—a tip of the cap to its own industrial roots.
Despite the time invested in creating authentic miniatures of real vehicles, Ted Dowst may have paused at calling his company's products genuine "models." In 1935, he supposedly stated, "We make toys for doodling, not models for collecting." And after shifting focus to detonator and buckle production during World War II, Dowst returned to toymaking with a renewed focus on just that—making toys, rather than painstaking scale reproductions (although the military inspired sets did reveal an extra attention to detail). In later years, the company tried to reposition itself as a quality model-maker, but collectors never really gravitated to the post-war TootsieToys the way they did to the earlier Dowst models.
[Above: 1957 advertisement for TootsieToy U.S. Army Sets. Below: The former Chicago headquarters of Dowst MFG Co. / Strombecker Corp., at 600 North Pulaski Road, as it looks today.]
III. Strombecker, a "Shure" Thing
By the mid 1950s, Dowst's primary production plant moved to a rather soulless, one-story cinder-block facility at 600 N. Pulaski Rd in Humboldt Park. It wasn't (and still isn't) much to look at, and the corporate offices were a bit of a tight squeeze, but the building remained TootsieToys international HQ through the end of the century.
From those offices, a new company president, Myron B. Shure, along with brothers Alan and Richard (all grandsons of Cosmo MFG Co. founder Nathan Shure), helped Dowst expand into new markets, including a surging cap gun industry, as well as marbles, wood blocks, jump ropes, and anything else that cost a nickel to make and a dime to buy.
"He wanted to make toys that everybody could afford," fourth generation president Daniel Shure later said of his father Myron. "He was proud that during times of depression, everybody could still buy for their children."
Old fashioned as he might sound, Myron Shure (who was also a famed collector of "outsider" art) had a keen eye for emerging trends. In 1961, he acquired the plastic car manufacturer Strombeck-Becker, which was producing motorized slot cars that kids could race against one another on electrified tracks. After the purchase, Shure re-organized the entire Dowst business as the new "Strombecker Corporation," and for several years, the slot cars became the company's top product.
[1964 advertisement for Strombecker slot cars. The Dowst MFG Co. acquired the Strombecker properties and became the Strombecker Corp. in 1961]
When the slot car fad tanked later in the decade, Shure kept the business afloat during some bumpy years, then made perhaps his most astute acquisition, buying Chem-Toy (makers of "Mr. Bubbles") in 1979. Revenue increased by about 5x once the bubble-blowing toys were added to the mix.
Using TootsieToy as its primary brand name, Strombecker Corp. continued to thrive into the 1990s, with Myron Shure eventually handing off control to his own son Daniel Shure. Even as competitors like Hot Wheels dragged down their market share, the company still produced more than 40 million mini cars and trucks per year into the 1990s. By then, much of the car manufacturing had moved to China, but Strombecker still had factories in Oklahoma, New York, and in its native Chicago, where the old Pulaski Road building was joined by a similarly nondescript plant at 4646 W. Lake Street. At this second location, which had formerly been home to the Strombecker slot car wing, 100 workers helped produce and package Mr. Bubbles to the tune of 50 million bottles each year.
In 1993, Strombecker employed 450 workers in all and profits were good, but the area around the old Humboldt Park plant was getting increasingly run down. "We'd like to stay here," Daniel Shure told the Tribune at the time, "but it's getting pretty dangerous. The firm has prospered here, though. It's part of the community. Most of our workers live nearby, and it sort of fits our image. No glitz."
[Women working on Strombecker's Mr. Bubbles assembly line, 2003. Photo by Neil Schierstedt]
With business slowing in the new century, Dan Shure sold Strombecker-TootsieToys to another longtime Chicago toy maker, the Processed Plastics Company, in 2004. The union was supposed to supercharge both entities, but proved a disappointing blunder, and within a year, Processed Plastics was liquidated, and its intellectual property, along with TootsieToys, was acquired by J. Lloyd International of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
This deal didn't go so well, either. Neither the J. Lloyd nor the TootsieToy corporate websites have been updated in more than five years, and while marketing materials from a decade ago still refer to TootsieToy as "America's Oldest Toy Company," it's really unclear what sort of presence they still have in America, or anywhere else. Strangely, it's easier to research TootsieToys as it was 100 years ago, when those laundry-loving Dowsts were running the show, than it is to figure out the state or fate of the brand here in the info-rich 21st century.
If you've got the inside dish on TootsieToys current status in 2019, do let us know in the comments below. And if you work for TootsieToys' marketing department, well, you might want to start doing your job.
[1924 Dowst advertisement, before trademarking of Tootsie Toy]
[1931 Tootsie Toy Catalog]
A History of Pre-War Automotive Tootsietoys, by Clint Seeley (edited by Robert Newson)
Iroquois Theatre Disaster Victims
History of the Strombecker Corp. - Funding Universe
Second Suds Sayings, edited by Charles Dowst, 1919
"TootsieToy Manufacturer Promoted Affordable Fun" - Chicago Tribune, December 27, 2002
"West Side Firm Still Bubbling with Success" - Chicago Tribune, April 26, 1993
"Tiny TootsieToys Entertained Children for Decades" - Antique Week, Vol. 51, Issue 2558, Sept. 24, 2018
TootsieToys: World's First Diecast Models, by James Wieland and Edward Force
Standard Catalog of Farm Toys: Identification and Price Guide, By Karen O'Brien, Kate Bossen
Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia, By Sharon M. Scott