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Moldville

A Brief History of Mold-A-Rama

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Moldville

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

Mold-a-Mania

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.

eBay

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

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Faruk Ateş, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
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How a Wall of Lava Lamps Makes the Web a Safer Place
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Faruk Ateş, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

A secure internet network relies on bits of data that hackers can’t predict: in other words, random numbers. Randomization is an essential part of every encryption service, but spitting out a meaningless stream of digits isn't as easy as it sounds. Computerized random number generators depend on code, which means it's possible for outside forces to anticipate their output. So instead of turning to high-tech algorithms, one digital security service takes a retro approach to the problem.

As YouTube personality Tom Scott reports in a recent video, the San Francisco headquarters of Cloudflare is home to a wall of lava lamps. Those groovy accessories play a crucial role when it comes to protecting web activity. The floating, liquid wax inside each of them dictates the numbers that make up encryption codes. Cloudflare collects this data by filming the lamps from a wall-mounted camera.

Unlike computer programs, lava lamps act in a way that's impossible to predict. They're not the only secure way to generate randomness (tools used by other Cloudflare offices include a "chaotic pendulum" and a radioactive source), but they may be the prettiest to look at.

[h/t Tom Scott]

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How a Rain-Soaked Seattle Bookstore Helped Invent the School Backpack

Cori Mothersbaugh remembers how she used to get her books from one class to another. Starting in grade school in the 1960s and through her sophomore year at the University of Washington in 1972, textbooks would be wrapped in a heavy brown paper bag and piled up in her arms. “My generation, we didn’t put books in anything,” the 66-year-old tells Mental Floss. “We just carried them.”

By the time that finally changed, Mothersbaugh would be close to graduation. But she could take a little solace in the fact that, as an employee at the University’s campus bookstore, she was an eyewitness to a meeting between an outdoor equipment salesman and a store manager that would forever influence how kids toted their school supplies.

A woman wears a white JanSport backpack
JanSport

A leather belt. That’s what kids in the early 1900s often used to cart their school books around, securing the strap around the pile and using the slack as a handle. Sometimes the strap would be made specifically for the purpose. Other times, kids would just use a waist belt, cinching it to create a bottom-heavy contraption that was probably used by more than one child as a bludgeon.

Around the same time, some enterprising outdoor equipment suppliers were making upgrades to the totes and satchels favored by their outdoor enthusiast customers. Taking a cue from the Inuit designs he saw in his Alaskan travels, entrepreneur Lloyd Nelson patented a pack in 1922 that could be worn across the upper back with a frame for added support. In 1938, Gerry Outdoors improved on the concept by adding zippered compartments that made it easier to fetch supplies while rock climbing. In 1967, the Gerry Teardrop Backpack innovated again by using nylon, a far more durable and weather-resistant material than canvas.

None of these products were created with students in mind. Their target audience was the outdoorsman, the roaming amateur explorers who enjoyed hiking, camping, and climbing. The growth of that industry paved the way for JanSport, co-founded by Skip Yowell and Murray and Jan Pletz in 1967. (Jan had the company named after her because she agreed to help sew some of their early products.)

Operating out of a Seattle transmission shop owned by Yowell’s uncle, JanSport quickly gained traction as a supplier that paid attention to the finer details. When Yowell heard that customers wanted a loop to hang an ice axe from, he added one. When they asked for a day pack made especially for dogs, he made them. His dialogue with customers allowed JanSport to react quickly to the needs of the market.

“Skip had this incredible personality,” Winnie Yowell, Skip’s widow, tells Mental Floss. “He made you feel like you were his best friend, that you had known him forever.”

That comradery was on display in 1972, when Yowell paid a visit to the University of Washington’s campus bookstore and spoke with manager Ed Bergan. With the bookstore connected to an athletics shop that sold skiing and other outdoor equipment, Bergan noticed that students would go pick up their textbooks and then head for the JanSport day pack display almost immediately.

“It was like a turnstile,” says Mothersbaugh, who worked for Bergan. “Kids would buy books and then look for something to carry them in.” Unlike some of the sunnier campuses on the west coast, books needed protection from the ever-present Seattle rain; a large number of students also biked around campus and needed a place to store their books so they could keep their hands on the handlebar.

Bergan mentioned this untapped market to Yowell and suggested a key addition: Since the packs were being used for heavy books, having some added support on the bottom would be beneficial. The reinforced bottom could carry the weight and resist water if it was put down on wet pavement.

Yowell, who had made a practice of listening to customers, agreed. He returned to JanSport and began producing day packs that had vinyl (and later leather) bottoms and jam-proof zippers. He sent them along to Bergan, who reported that they were practically flying off the shelves.

“It was a new way to carry things,” Mothersbaugh says. “I think kids would see other kids with one and it caught on. I know we sold a lot of them.”

Bergan was so impressed by the response that he began telling his colleagues at other campus bookstores in the Pacific Northwest about JanSport and its virtually indestructible backpacks, which Yowell would later dub the SuperBreak. A revolution was taking place—but it would be a few more years before it became a national phenomenon.

A 1984 L.L. Bean catalog page featuring the Book Pack
Courtesy of Andy Gilchrist

At the time JanSport’s book pack exploded, the company had a regional footprint. Students on the East Coast in the 1970s and early 1980s weren’t yet aware of the alternative use for the bags, and it was often left up to enterprising parents to improvise school sacks for their children. In 1980, syndicated arts and crafts columnists Ed and Stevie Baldwin offered instructions for a DIY backpack by mail order. The bags were made from jeans and recycled waistbands. For anyone willing to take up the task for themselves, the Baldwins sold the pattern for $3.95.

Of course, college students were less likely to have their parents sewing backpacks for them. That’s probably one reason why a Harvard law school enrollee wrote to Ned Kitchel in 1981. Kitchel, who was the head of product development for L.L. Bean's outdoor equipment category from 1976 to 1991, remembers the correspondence well. “The guy had ordered the first nylon day pack we had introduced to the line,” Kitchel tells Mental Floss. “It was intended for hiking. He said he liked it but that his law books poked a hole in the bottom and could we please make one to hold them.”

Kitchel thought that made sense. Not long after, he ran into a seamstress named Marcia Briggs at a Las Vegas trade show. Briggs was co-owner of Caribou Mountaineering and had already toyed with the idea of adopting a day pack for school use. “I asked if they [Caribou] could do anything and she pulled one right off the shelf,” Kitchel says. “With a few alterations, that became the L.L. Bean Book Pack.”

At the time, there was a crucial difference in reach between JanSport and L.L. Bean. JanSport acted as a wholesaler, dealing with retailers. Bean was a catalog business, selling directly to the consumer. (Without the middle man, their packs sold for $25 compared to JanSport’s $30 to $40 models.) They didn’t need to convince store owners a student-oriented pack was a good idea—they just added it to their pages. “The first year [1982], we sold maybe 10,000 of them,” Kitchel says. “The next year, 50,000. Then 100,000. The numbers were astonishing.”

The Bean Book Pack made some crucial additions to the student book-toting experience. Briggs designed a seamless bottom using a continuous piece of fabric, making it much more resistant to having sharp book corners poking at the sides. Compartments were added so supplies like pencils and rulers could be easily retrieved. Later, Kitchel would add reflective stripes to the exterior so kids would be visible in low light. That feature appealed to parents, who browsed the catalog and then ordered Book Packs for their children.

By 1984, newspapers were taking note of the trend spreading everywhere from kindergarten to universities. Across the country, students were lugging packs made specifically for their needs. Packs from JanSport, L.L. Bean, and a handful of other brands like Eastpak and Trager came in an assortment of colors, including pink and camouflage. Licensed packs featuring ALF, Mickey Mouse, and Barbie grew popular with younger backpackers. Promotional giveaways used them as a way to grab attention. (Send in two Chips Ahoy! proof of purchase seals along with $6.95 for a Chips Ahoy! backpack.) If you were carrying books by hand, you were missing a sea change in education. Backpacks had arrived.

A child with a backpack walks down a flight of stairs
woodleywonderworks, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In terms of brand recognition, not a whole lot has changed since backpacks became a staple of school lockers in the ‘80s. Kids, fiercely loyal to brands, still favor JanSport and L.L. Bean, along with other packs made by VF, the parent company currently behind JanSport.

“At least on the east coast, you can’t walk on a campus and not see L.L. Bean backpacks everywhere,” Kitchel says. Of Yowell, who conquered the other coast, Kitchel echoes the sentiments of most everyone who met him prior to his death in 2012. “He’s one of the classiest guys I ever knew.”

Kitchel estimates that L.L. Bean sold $500 million in packs since 1982. JanSport had tallied 25 million SuperBreak packs between 1979 and 2007.

With digital learning tools on the rise, some outlets are predicting a dip in backpack sales as more classes are moving coursework online. Yet 2014 was a record high for backpack sales, with 174 million sold. Students may no longer be weighed down with 30 pounds of paper, but there’s still a need to pad and protect tablets, headphones, and other learning accessories. There’s also the matter of aesthetics: A student’s choice of color, shape, and features in a backpack can help broadcast their personality to a campus full of strangers. That's not likely to go out of style anytime soon.

“I think Skip realized where the future was going to be,” Winnie Yowell says. “The goal was always to be cool and fun, and that was Skip’s thing.”

Additional Sources: The Hippie Guide to Climbing the Corporate Ladder & Other Mountains: How JanSport Makes It Happen.

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