The roots of the present-day Strombecker date to 1876, when a trade paper called the National Laundry Journal was started on the West Side of Chicago. Its publishers, brothers Charles O. and Samuel Dowst, later began to make small laundry accessories like die-cast collar buttons and cufflinks. In 1893 Samuel Dowst saw a Mergenthaler Linotype machine at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, which made metal type for printing by injecting hot lead into molds. Realizing it could also effectively produce metal buttons, he convinced the company to purchase one.
Dowst soon began producing more metal items, including die-cast promotional trinkets for clients like the Flat Iron Laundry Company, which bought them to give away to its customers' children. These items, which included a flatiron, a top hat, a Scottie dog, and a candlestick, would much later be adopted for use as tokens in the board games Monopoly and Clue. In 1906 Dowst introduced the world's first die-cast toy car, and several years later began making one patterned after the Model T Ford, which went on to sell more than 50 million copies. The firm's toy vehicles were known as "Tootsietoys," after company founder Charles O. Dowst's granddaughter "Toots." Their popularity was such that automobile manufacturers paid for creation of the molds so they could be included in the company's line.
One of the firm's competitors was the Cosmo Manufacturing Company, which had been founded in Chicago in 1892 by Nathan Shure. Cosmo's niche was making small prizes for inclusion in boxes of Cracker Jack, which was made by another Chicago-area firm. In 1926 Cosmo bought Dowst, and the merged companies took the name Dowst Manufacturing Co. Together they would make a variety of die-cast toys like train sets, doll furniture, airplanes, cars, and trucks, as well as Cracker Jack prizes and game tokens. By this time the firm had abandoned its publishing operations.
Dowst's business continued to grow despite the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, during which the company turned to producing detonators for grenades and mines, as well as belt and parachute buckles. Because of severe restrictions on the use of metal, Dowst Manufacturing's only wartime toys were made of paper.
After the cessation of hostilities, the company returned to full-time toy production. Dowst soon added new items like western-style cap gun sets, which would prove popular in the late 1950s. By that time control of the firm had passed to Nathan Shure's grandsons Myron, Richard, and Alan.
The 1950s had seen the emergence of a number of new electronic toys, including slot cars, motorized size plastic vehicles that could be raced against each other on an electrified track. The cars, which were replicas of actual models made by the likes of Jaguar and Ferrari, quickly became popular with youngsters, especially boys. To cash in on the trend, in 1961 Dowst acquired the hobby division of manufacturer Strombeck-Becker, hired 14 designers, and retooled its factory to facilitate production of the car-and-track sets. Sales of the toys, which were marketed under the name Strombecker, jumped from 20,000 to 500,000 sets by 1963, making the company one of the industry's leaders in this category. With the cars now comprising the firm's main source of revenue, Dowst Manufacturing changed its name to Strombecker Corporation.
For several years the company rode high on the slot car fad, but then sales plunged in the latter half of the decade. When the firm's largest customer, Sears, Roebuck & Co., canceled orders and tried to return all of its inventory, Strombecker faced financial ruin. The firm, which had recorded profits of $3 million at the peak of the boom, suddenly found itself facing annual losses of more than $6 million. As a consequence, Myron, Alan, and Richard Shure were forced to personally guarantee the company's loans, and to avoid bankruptcy they decided to return to the more traditional toys with which the firm had earlier found success. At this time Alan Shure left to run a business that made small electric motors, leaving Myron and Richard to run the company.
Strombecker bounced back with the introduction of the "Jam-Pac," a set of ten die-cast cars that sold for a dollar. Placed by the counter at supermarkets throughout the country, it became "the world's best shutter-upper," according to Myron Shure's son Daniel, as parents in the checkout line could buy it for a child in order to keep them quiet. The Jam-Pac sold ten million sets in its first year, and continued to do well thereafter.
During this same period Strombecker acquired exclusive rights to manufacture Kewpie Dolls, which had been created in the early 1900s by Rose O'Neill. The firm hired Jean Cantwell, secretary-treasurer of the Rose O'Neill Club, to act as spokesperson. The venture was not a major success, however. By the mid-1970s Strombecker's annual sales were a relatively modest $6 million.