The Nostalgia of Molten Plastic

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I came across something that caught my eye the other day. I was scrolling through Facebook, and saw an ad: “Mold-A-Rama Machines For Sale” I clicked on it. It was a business called “Moldville” that specialized in such things, and they listed a phone number with the caution in all caps: SERIOUS INQUIRIES ONLY. We have a small, townhouse-style condo, and a not unlimited amount of disposable income; as much as my nostalgia nerve would LOVE to own one, it’s not only not practical, it’s nearly impossible.

At one time in the early 1970s, Mold-A-Rama machines were ubiquitous in museums, zoos, and other attractions all over the US. They were injection molding machines, and the plexiglass bubble allowed you to see a limited part of the process – basically, the two halves of the mold coming together, and then, when they separated, you saw your molded statue in all it’s shiny plastic glory, as a spatula-like device scraped the statue off the base underneath, dumping it into a slot for your convenient retrieval. There were dozens of different designs in a wide array of colors – some designs specific to the place – like Disney theme parks and Sea World – while others were more generic. There were animals, vehicles (including the Space Shuttle) and things like Santa, Christmas trees, and even the Houston Astrodome. I still have one, from the Henry Vilas Zoo here in Madison, Wisconsin. The statuettes grow frail as the age (don’t we all?) and become more susceptible to catastrophic breakage after a couple of decades. The collection we had amassed when I was little included a white bust of Abraham Lincoln and three from Sea World – two dolphins (“Flipper”) in blue and and a marlin in white. After I moved out of my parents house I found several in zoos that caught my eye; at one time I had a black panther, a black gorilla, and a red elephant – the latter of which I still have.

Winkie the elephant, from the days when the Henry Vilas Zoo still had elephants on display.
You can just make out “Henry Vilas Zoo” on the base. The back reads “Wilkie II, Madison WI” Wilkie is a typo.

This one recreates an actual animal that was on-site at the time: Winkie the elephant, who many years later was re-homed to an elephant sanctuary in Tennessee after a number of dangerous incidents.

The Mold-A-Rama figures were a delightful episode from my childhood, and I remember fondly my excitement at feeding the quarters into the machine, waiting while the loud rumbling and hissing of the pneumatics involved, and finally, seeing the molded creation revealed before it was unceremoniously dumped into the retrieval slot. It was still quite warm at this stage, and the instructions printed on the machine cautioned the new owner to hold the figure upside-down by the base until it had cooled to prevent any still-liquid plastic from spilling out through the two holes in the base. The hot plastic smell was unique, and highly memorable for me even to this day.

T and I used to have a holiday ritual we’d go through every year: we’d see who could be the first to grab my Mold-A-Rama panther figure and hide it in the other’s Christmas stocking. Occasionally, the subterfuge included putting it in a small box and wrapping it. It finally broke one year after a tumble from a high shelf to the linoleum below, and we disposed of it with all due respect and no small amount of ceremony. Tears were shed.

The Mold-A-Rama company still exists, though it’s been sold once or twice since its inception, and they sell many of the finished figurines from their website, along with nostalgia-capturing hats and t-shirts: https://mold-a-rama.com/ After I’ve finished paying off my holiday splurges, I may have to invest in a couple of new figures. After all, they have dinosaurs…

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2020 was one doozy of a year, wasn’t it? With hope on the horizon from a number of sources, my wish is for my readers to have a happy, safe, and healthy 2021. Cheers!

One thought on “The Nostalgia of Molten Plastic

  1. The machines are comfortable nostalgia now. They conjure memories of place with the multipliers of smell and touch to lick them vividly in our heads. I think it’s hard to realize the Sensawonder (tm by Jay) that those machines created for children of the 60s.

    Plastic was still new enough in American homes that setting it manipulated in front of us for the price of a quarter was amazing. The logical extension of these machines was, of course, Plastigoop, liquid plastic that you at home dribbled into a pot metal platen heated to blistering temperatures using the same technology used to heat cup o soup in Skid Row rooms across the country.

    The Plastigoop hardened into wiggly spiders and ugly unicornesque toys that clogged family vacuums for a half decade. But the wonders of plastic gave way to more prosaic uses and familiarity bred contempt, as they say.

    No need to create a polyethylene panther when you have world building capability in your Switch. My grandbabies may never know the joy of holding a still warm Alamo in their hands and holding it up for a long sniff of The Future.

    It didn’t compare to a fresh mimeograph but it wasn’t bad

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