They say that scent is the sense that can help us most powerfully recall memories, from the fizzy sweet smell of strawberry pop or the chlorine of the neighborhood pool to the earthy smell of mucky sand just beyond where the shore and lakewater meet. Maybe that’s why the first thing that came to mind for many of the friends, family and strangers I talked with about Mold-A-Ramas with was the smell of “hot, melty crayons.”
It’s a smell inextricably tied to summers spent exploring Chicagoland museums and zoos, and holds memories of time spent with family or on fantastic field trips. As a child, I loved slipping in dollar bills in anticipation of the steady chug of the machine forming my lions, tigers and yes, bears. I loved the plasticky smell that emanated from it and the solid shiny steel of the mold clapping together, and I always begged to hold my new treasures right away (upside-down, of course!) while they dried, being careful not to mash the delicate noses or slender giraffe necks.
Mold-A-Rama was the brainchild of a man known as “Tike” Miller, from downstate Quincy, Illinois (though some say he hails from Phoenix.) Frustrated after finding pieces of his nativity set broken and not being able to replace just a single statue, he began experimenting with plaster molds, which he then sold to department stores. Soon, Miller would trade plaster for plastic, and create a plastic injection molding machine that came to be known as Mold-A-Ramas, a souvenir machine beloved since its early days at the Seattle and New York World’s Fairs, and a common sight at many of Chicago’s most beloved tourist attractions.
2016 marks 50 years of the plastic goodies’ presence at the Brookfield Zoo, and they’re celebrating all summer long, with two special figurines for each month as well as a new mold, the anniversary bison, which not only ties in with Brookfield’s mascot, but is an instant collector’s item. Chet Koval, who oversees the park’s machines, told us that when the machines first arrived on scene, the figures cost around 25 to 50 cents (compared to today’s $2 price tag). These days, there are 13 machines currently in operation at the zoo, which accounts for almost half of Chicago’s 27 machines, the largest collection in any one city.
Chicago didn’t get the largest collection by chance, though. These small plastic childhood treasures are in fact, local flavor. This is not only because of the inventor’s Illinois ties, but also because when Mold-A-Rama’s original parent company, Aramark Predecessor, ARA, faced financial troubles, it had to sell off some of its smaller subsidiaries. Mold-A-Rama was one of those sold, and split into two different companies, present day Mold-A-Matic based in Florida, and Midwest darling Mold-a-Rama, operated currently by the Jones family.
“It’s an inexpensive item somebody can get of their favorite animal and it has that memory of their visit to the zoo,” Koval told us in a recent interview. And it’s still a draw today. “I see the excitement…they get excited looking at the molds that they had in the past and a lot of people that follow the Facebook page get really into it. It’s still a big draw. It’s nostalgic. How many different things can you see created before your eyes? It’s the precursor to the 3D printer, but nowadays there’s nothing like it really, that I’ve seen anywhere else.”
And it’s true. Mold-A-Ramas still do impress. In 2015, WBEZ reported that Jack White was so enamored of the machines he saw at the Museum of Science and Industry that he sought one out for his Nashville studio. The studio’s launch party shows the machine in all its glory.
There is a huge collector’s market for these figurines, especially rarer pieces like Miller’s original “Miller Alien” collection, the Canadian maple leaf from the Montreal World’s Fair or the more local MSI Fairy Castle models fetching anywhere from $20 to a whopping $800 per figure. There are also rare machines, like the one that was recently acquired by Lake County’s Volo Auto Museum. It’s a Disney machine that debuted in 1964 at the New York World’s Fair just as Mold-A-Rama was gathering steam. These particular machines featured special wire Marx figures of popular Disney characters that “worked” the machine and the machine itself molded trademarked favorites like Donald, Goofy and Mickey. The machine was acquired through an arduous vetting process, was fully functional, with rebuilt mechanics but a completely original outer fascia. They were also fortunate enough to acquire a prototype Disney gorilla figure that was a predecessor to the Miller machines and never made production. Says Volo director Brian Grams of the acquisitions, “People are either amazed by the machine and understand how rare and how fortunate they are to be able to witness the machine, while others have no clue.” Volo’s precious machine is proudly displayed at the museum’s entrance, and for $5, visitors can grab a truly rare piece from what is thought to be the only working Disney-themed machine in the US.
Whether you’re a hard core collector, a nostalgic fan of the figures or someone totally new to it, we think it’s worth celebrating this Midwestern marvel for its inexpensive, colorful, fantastic smelling place in our hearts.