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. But the Dowst brothers quickly realized that if their machine could cast 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 one might find in a box of Cracker Jacks, on the board game Monopoly, or dangling from a charm bracelet.
Cast lead model cars and other vehicles became a mainstay for the company in the years just prior to World War I. In 1911, Dowst Brothers introduced its first model car in the shape of a limousine. That was followed in 1915 by a Model T Ford. And then, in 1922, these model cars and a new line of dollhouse furniture were given the brand name of Tootsietoy, named after the illegitimate daughter of Theodore Dowst, son of Samuel, who was a bookkeeper at Dowst Brothers (the mother was a secretary at the company at the time, and the couple eventually married).
During the 1920s, the company’s lines expanded to include model cars and trucks of numerous makes and models, model airplanes, miniature candlestick telephones, and water pistols capable of shooting a “stream of water ten to twelve feet.” There were sports cars and buses, fire trucks and tractors, and in 1927, Tootsietoy was the first company to sell a toy version of the new Ford Model A, which came in green, red, blue, and khaki, in a box of the same color.
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 and Andy Gump—they were packed six to a box for only 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 oxidization.