Long before 3D printing was a thing, kids of all ages were plunking quarters into Mold-A-Rama vending machines to get plastic sculptures made right before their eyes. Let’s take a look back at the history of these mid-century manufacturing marvels.
Big Idea, Small Figures
In the winter of 1937, J.H. “Tike” Miller of Quincy, Illinois, was digging out his family’s Christmas decorations when he noticed that one of the figures from his nativity scene had broken. But the department store where he bought the scene didn’t sell the figures individually; if he wanted a replacement piece, he’d have to buy a whole new set.
Miller and his wife sculpted and painted a new plaster figure themselves and, seeing a problem that needed fixing, he started his own company to sell nativity figures and other small statues at local novelty shops. A few years later, World War II broke out across Europe, blocking the import of nativity decorations from the world’s number one supplier, Germany. This put the J.H. Miller Company in a prime position to step in and become the leading American manufacturer of nativity sets for years to come.
Sometime in 1955, Miller’s company moved away from plaster and started using plastic injection molding. The process melted polyethylene pellets at about 225 degrees and then injected the resulting liquid into a two-piece mold. Before the plastic could completely cool, a blast of high-pressure air would push any remaining liquid out a drainage hole in the bottom of the mold, leaving the sculpture hollow. Next, antifreeze was pumped inside and then drained to cool and harden the waxy plastic shell. The mold separated and the finished figure was ready. The whole process took less than a minute to complete.
The new method was cheaper than plaster casting, which gave Miller the freedom to experiment and expand his line of figurines. He created a series of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals, jungle animals, and the popular “Earth Invaders,” now known as the “Miller Aliens,” which include the Purple People Eater, inspired by the hit novelty song.
Despite a series of successful figures, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1959. However, this provided an opportunity for Tike to further develop an idea he’d had to convert his patented injection molding machine into an on-demand figure vending machine. Working with Chicago’s Automatic Retailers of America (ARA), which would later become Aramark, Miller licensed the technology that became Mold-A-Rama.
The Future of Manufacturing
Debuting at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, the bubble-topped machines created waxy, plastic models of the Fair’s showcase building, the Space Needle, as well as a monorail, a Buddha, a 3D sculpture of the Fair’s logo, and other fun designs. At 50 cents each (approximately $4 today), the souvenirs weren't cheap, but the experience of watching the statue created before your eyes must have convinced fairgoers they were seeing the future of manufacturing. ARA hoped that wasn’t too far from the truth; the souvenir market started as merely a proof of concept for ARA, who had loftier plans to offer on-demand products like dishes, vases, ashtrays, pocket combs, and even jewelry available any time at the push of a button.
Although its showing in Seattle was strong, it was the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City that put Mold-A-Rama on the map. Some estimates say there were as many as 150 machines in various corporate exhibits over the course of the Fair’s two years. Multiple units were set up inside the Sinclair Oil “Dinoland” Exhibit, producing a plastic Apatosaurus that resembled Sinclair’s iconic mascot, as well as various colors of Tyrannosaurus Rex, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and other prehistoric beasts. Disney and Pepsi partnered to offer figures like Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck, and Pluto, complete with highly-customized Mold-A-Rama units featuring miniature Disney characters that appeared to be operating parts of the machine. Across the various exhibits and pavilions, figures such as dolphins, alligators, NASA’s Space Lab and Project Mercury space capsule, presidential busts, and more were available for 50 cents each.
Mold-A-Rama went international in 1967 when it was featured at the Montreal World’s Fair, Expo ’67. There, eager Canucks could pick up a plastic Royal Canadian Mounted Police figure, an Eiffel Tower, or a logo of the Fair on a maple leaf.
From Lions to Lincoln and Lawrence Welk
Mold-A-Rama machines began popping up everywhere. Popular tourist destinations like museums, zoos, and amusement parks had machines for souvenir seekers. But you could also find the familiar bubble tops in department stores like Sears, rest stops on interstate highways, and in some corner drugstores.
While no one is sure precisely how many moldsets have been produced for Mold-A-Rama machines, Bill Bollman of moldville.com has found 196 unique designs used between 1962 and 1967. The count gets a little muddy after that because multiple companies were creating molds, but he estimates there are around 300 unique moldsets.
In all, somewhere around 200 Mold-A-Rama machines were made by ARA between 1962 and 1969, when they decided to get out of the plastic figurine business. One factor for their decision could have been the large investment of $3600 (approximately $28,000 today) to build each machine. In addition to the initial expense, the plastic pellets had to be refilled often and mechanical parts had to be replaced frequently, requiring a staff of trained technicians that traveled between multiple locations. Whatever their reasoning, by 1971, ARA had sold off all the machines to a handful of independent operators. Only two operators remain today: Mold-A-Rama Inc. near Chicago and Mold-A-Matic in the Tampa area.
Mold-A-Rama Inc. has about 60 machines in popular Windy City spots like the Brookfield Zoo, the Field Museum, the Lincoln Park Zoo, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Willis Tower. (They have machines at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, the San Antonio Zoo, and the Milwaukee County Zoo, too.) There are about 70 Mold-A-Matic brand machines that can be found in places like Busch Gardens, Zoo Miami, the Central Florida Zoo, Gatorland, the Lowry Park Zoo, the Mote Aquarium, and the famous Seaquarium, among many others. While the price for modern figures has gone up to an average cost of $2, it’s still cheaper than a stuffed animal.
Your Own Mold-A-Rama
There are a few individual collectors who have their own Mold-A-Rama machines, including Bob Bollman of moldville.com. In 2012 and 2013, Bollman created Club-A-Rama, offering newly-cast figurines from his original machine and his personal collection of molds, as well as a selection of molds borrowed from Mold-A-Matic. At $5 each, Bollman sent out a new figure every week plus a bonus figure, including many designs that have rarely been seen since the Mold-A-Rama heyday. He hasn’t renewed the concept for 2014, but he’s still offering a daily giveaway of figures on his Facebook page, so you have a chance to get your hands on one of these rare collectibles.
Rotofugi, a high-end toy store in Chicago, bought a vintage Mold-A-Rama machine and completely restored it in order to produce new figures sculpted by modern artists. Rechristened the Roto-A-Matic, the machine currently produces “Helper Dragon” figures by Tim Biskup for $6 each. Unfortunately, the process of producing the molds is more time-consuming and expensive than they had originally hoped, so after nearly two years, this is the only figure they’ve been able to offer. However, it is available in a variety of colors and can be purchased in-store or online.
Collecting Molded Memories
Because the figures were made of fragile plastic and often seen as a tchotchke, few original era Mold-A-Rama figures exist today. Original Sinclair dinosaurs from the New York World’s Fair can go for over $50 on eBay, but the vast majority of vintage figures fall somewhere in the $15 to $20 range.
One of the most sought-after pieces is the Fairy Castle that was available exclusively at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. The figure was a highly-detailed representation of the famous miniature house created by silent film star Colleen Moore. The mold is so detailed that the statues often came out looking a little sloppy. The mold was retired shortly after it was installed, making the figures especially hard to find today. In January, a good quality white Fairy Castle sold on eBay for $153. Another recent eBay sale saw a figure depicting the Better Living Center from the New York World’s Fair go for $259. Because the figure was only produced at the Fair, and is one of only a handful that doubles as a coin bank, the Better Living Center design has become very collectible.
The Holy Grail of Mold-A-Rama collectors is an original 1958 Purple People Eater. The signature piece of the Miller Aliens line is so rare that one in good condition sold in 2012 for $809 on eBay. Not a bad return on a 25 cent investment.
With only a few companies still operating these 50-year-old machines, it’s hard to say how much longer Mold-A-Rama figures will be around. With modern 3D scanning and printing technologies, these souvenirs of a bygone era may become more common if people start printing them at home. But even if you can make your own figure anytime you like, nothing will ever replace the memories of watching those space-age vending machines create something from nothing right before your very eyes.
All images courtesy of Moldville.com unless otherwise specified