|By Doug Graves
When Charles and Samuel Dowst of Chicago purchased a fancy new linotype machine in the 1890s, their intent was to use it to ready their firm’s flagship product, National Laundry Journal, for publication. Learning they could make other useable items with their single machine, they later purchased a linotype machine to cast metal buttons and cuff links, all related to the laundry business.
But the Dowst brothers quickly realized that if their machine could case lead into the shapes of letters and numerals for a printing press, it could also be customized to produce small objects of almost any shape.
Soon the brothers had outstripped the capabilities of their Linotype machine, casting and selling all sorts of metal novelties in the shapes of animals, whistles and vehicles – the kinds of objects that ended up in a box of Cracker Jacks, in the board game Monopoly, or dangling from a charm bracelet. They also produced collar buttons and small promotional irons, even confectioner items for wedding and birthday cakes.
By 1899 the firm was listed as “Dowst Brothers Co., Confectioners’ Supplies”, and by 1904 as “Metal Novelties.” Samuel’s son, Theodore Dowst, became a bookkeeper for the company and he was quite inventive as he helped patent cars and trucks with moveable wheels by 1911. That’s right, toys.
Thanks to a hot metal machine that printed pages for a journal, the Dowst brothers discovered a new-found love and new-found business in the manufacture of toys. First off the assembly line was a tiny limousine in lead that proved very popular. That was followed in 1915 by a Model T Ford. Tiny, too, as most were just 3 to 5 inches in length.
These toys had no trade name until 1922. The name Tootsietoy was registered as a trademark in 1924. The name was only mentioned on dollhouse furniture. The Tootsie name itself was derived from Theodore’s daughter, whose nickname was ’Toots.”
During the 1920s, the company’s lines expanded to include model cars and trucks of various makes and models, model airplanes, miniature candlestick telephones and water pistols capable of shooting a stream of water 10 to 12 feet. The company’s line includes sports cars, buses, fire trucks and tractors.
In the 1930s, the company weathered the Great Depression by keeping its prices low and giving customers something to smile about. Both of these impulses were satisfied by the Tootsietoy Funnies cars, whose designs were taken from newspaper funny page characters such as Moon Mullins in the rear of an open paddy wagon driven by a helmeted cop, Andy Gump in his open car, Uncle Walt Wallet in his roadster, Smitty on a motorcycle with Herbie in the sidecar and Uncle Willy and Mamie in a motor boat bearing her name. These were packed six to a box for just a dollar.
The 1930s were also the years when Tootsietoy introduced its famous Graham line (1932), a collection of Mack trucks (1933) and the sleek LaSalles and DoodleBugs (1935). These last cars were produced using a zinc alloy called Zamak, which was a harder material than lead but more susceptible to oxidation.
“The first version of Parker Brothers’ Monopoly in 1935 came with wooden dowels as playing pieces,” said the late Clint Seeley in his book The History of Pre-War Tootsietoys. “But when the game was repackaged in 1937 with new metal tokens made by Dowst Manufacturing, the players found the thimble and iron included among the inaugural offerings.”
Whether small or large, metal Tootsietoys were usually simply made, oftentimes with only seven parts: a single diecast metal body, two axles and four wheels.
“Vehicles often had white rubber tires which over time became brittle and often didn’t survive play wear and time,” Seeley wrote.
Author and toy car expert Philippe de Lespinay calls Tootsietoys “one of the greatest of collecting bargains today.”
“In the mid-1930s, Tootsietoy models, cars, trucks, aircraft, trains, boats as well as doll furniture ruled the world in manufacturing technology and visual appeal, and were the most popular toys in America at the time,” de Lespinay said. “Fortunately for collectors, millions were produced and thousands survived in good to excellent condition.”
The 1930s saw a surge in Tootsietoy appeal, when the company created a revolution that has endured to this day. The 1933 Tootsietoy catalog contained a huge amount of new models, based on the 1932 Graham-Paige “Blue Streak” and the contemporary Mack truck line.
The Graham line included a sedan, town car, coupe, roadster, dual cowl convertible, delivery panel truck and tow truck. One car that definitely was a promotional model was the 1935 LaSalle made for General Motors that came in sedan and coupe versions packaged in a special, small blue and dark rose box. Another interesting model was the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr which was available in a gift set with a ’Roamer’ camper trailer.
“The Tootsietoy Grahams and later LaSalle and Lincoln models were the most popular toy cars in America in the 1930s,” Lespinay said.
The Graham line in its different versions became Tootsietoy’s most famous model and was produced in the millions at a time when the 1929 market crash had been prolonged into a deep economic depression. This left millions of parents hardly able to purchase toys for their young children, and many a troy company were pushed into bankruptcy by a declining market. Dowst addressed the issue with some of the most attractive and inexpensive toys ever produced in America.
Throughout the 1930s and up until 1942 the sedan, coupe and roadsters were sold in a set called “Build-a-Car”, in which five chassis could be assembled with half axles and a center clip to five bodies (two limousines, two coupes and either a roadster or a commercial tire-supply van). These had no spare tires and had specially cast bodies. Each car purchased separately cost 10 cents.
“Because of their low cost and high detail, these were the most popular toy autos in the Franklin D. Roosevelt era,” Lespinay said. “Today, thousands have survived, many in excellent condition.”
As with any manufacturing company, changes occur. Highlight of the 1950s was a Pontiac Safari two-door station wagon, diecast in a 1/28 scale, larger than most of the Tootsietoy fare. In the 1960s, the company capitalized with a 1960 Chrysler convertible, many of them up to 5 inches in length. By the 1970s the company introduced a $1, 10-car “JamPac” of tiny, simple diecast cars roughly 2 inches. A few of these smaller cars are still in demand, like a replica of the Chevy Corvette powered Cheetah. This car, Lespinay says, was not commonly seen in miniature elsewhere.
In 1961, Dowst and Tootsietoy purchased Strombeck-Becker, a hobby company which previously made popular plastic models mainly for slot car racing.
By the late 1960s, Tootsieboys were made in both the U.S. and Hong Kong, and today most are produced in Asia. Tootsietoy, which is now owned by J. Lloyd International, Inc, is still based in Chicago and makes 40 million cars per year.
“As the prices of such toys have declined over the past few years and because supply is not inexhaustible, now is the time to collect these wonderfully colorful and appealing pre-war models as a displayable investment for the future,” Lespinay said. “Prices are low because of the Internet. As prices slowly rise, a whole new demand by new younger collectors will eventually outstrip supply. There are tons of them out there, but few are left in truly good condition. Unfortunately, many have not been restored. I do not recommend to anyone to purchase restored models as an investment, especially when excellent originals often sell for the same amounts.”