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Celebrating Mold

Mar 29, 2024Mar 29, 2024

The world headquarters of Mold-A-Rama Inc. is tucked inside a colorless strip of businesses in Brookfield, the kind of block so forlorn it’s hard to tell if anything is open or closed. There’s a small mailbox noting that Mold-A-Rama is inside, but nothing like a typical storefront sign. On a January morning, the scene is so winter beige, to even call this location a strip mall seems extravagant. Fans of Mold-A-Rama, collectors of its 60 years of colorful molded statues, show up occasionally, unannounced. “They assume they’ll find hundreds of employees, but nope,” said Sue Jones, wife of co-owner Paul Jones. He was out at the Museum of Science and Industry, servicing their Mold-A-Rama machines, making certain visitors receive tiny plastic chicks, submarines, steam trains.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day was the day before and Chicago museums were slammed, which meant Paul’s durable, decades-old Mold-A-Rama machines at MSI and the Field Museum were slammed. Some of the very same machines that pushed out three-inch Lincoln busts during the Nixon administration are still operating, seven days a week.

Few things are as they were in 1971, when the Jones family took over the world of Mold-A-Rama museum and zoo souvenirs, but the Mold-A-Rama experience remains the same.

At the MSI, for instance, which just opened a yearlong exhibit on the history of Mold-A-Rama, you still approach a chunky, jukebox-size machine that once looked space-age. The top is a glass bubble, beneath which sits an array of metal gauges — water temperature, tank pressure — and two black blocks at the end of hydraulic pistons.

The whole contraption — minus its “MOLD-A-RAMA” banner — suggests a mad scientist’s laboratory. Decades ago it ate quarters; now you swipe a credit card, which takes $5. But the rest is the same: The machine rumbles to life, those two blocks push together and the machine rumbles more. A moment later, the blocks separate and a molded plastic souvenir tumbles out. Lift the small metal door, fish out your prize and —

That smell!

Ah, the sweet waft of low-density polyethylene baked at a cozy 250 degrees. If I came home and smelled this smell, I would assume there was an electrical fire, but here, with the result being a small HMS Bounty statue, it smells just like a fourth-grade field trip.

“Because,” Sue said, “smell is memory.”

And wisely, it’s a memory the Jones family has not updated much.

In fact, though the Mold-A-Rama process now looks like a precursor to 21st century 3D printing (and sometimes employs 3D printing during the development of new statues), the MSI exhibit presents it as essentially vintage, stone-age technology, providing “a peek into mass production.” Specifically, injection molding, which is basically what a Mold-A-Rama machine does. The company still creates new statues every year, Paul explained, but searching for someone who can design and sculpt two sides of a plastic object? “It’s a lost art.” The machine squashes together the two sides into a single object. Then hot plastic pellets are injected into a sculpted cavity inside the two blocks. Simultaneously, cold air is being blown through the blocks, to hollow out the statue. During this stage, within a few moments, a Mold-A-Rama statue plunges from 250 degrees to 95 degrees.

The result is soft at first, warm and, as any Gen-Xer will vouch, seemingly indestructible.

People view the Mold-A-Rama exhibit at the Science and Industry Museum on Jan. 20, 2023. The yearlong exhibit on the history of Mold-A-Rama recently opened. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

An octopus at the MSI Mold-A-Rama exhibit. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

So much so that the exhibit itself questions the ethics of buying a Mold-A-Rama. Even as it celebrates this novelty medium and its generations of stewards, the show wonders: “Does it really make sense to create disposable products that we use for a few minutes but last hundreds of years?” Ironically, souvenirs bought in zoos and museums dedicated to the study of nature might break down into the kind of nanoplastics that get ingested by animals, becoming harmful to nature (including people). “Maybe,” the wall text suggests, “we can use our ingenuity to design a better way of meeting our needs.”

Or hey, Debbie Downer curators, maybe you don’t appreciate a plastic hippo molded before your eyes?

Since 1971, the Jones family’s Mold-A-Rama machines have pumped out 10 million souvenirs. These days, it’s a smaller operation: They own 63 machines in five states, including more than a dozen at the Brookfield Zoo. (The zoo’s dolphin Mold-A-Rama is the company’s all-time bestseller, locally and nationally.) Their only competition is Florida-based Mold-A-Matic, which has been in the molded-plastic souvenir game even longer; they primarily serve Florida amusement parks and zoos across the South.

Like other creations gathering dust in our closets, the Mold-A-Rama began as an act of homegrown ingenuity. A Quincy inventor named J.H. “Tike” Miller — whom the exhibition describes as a “serial entrepreneur” — was looking for a way to replace the figures in his Nativity scene. When the U.S. halted imports from Germany during World War II, he sought a way to craft new statues with injection molding. Having solved Nativity shortages, he moved on to aliens and animals. Eventually, he sold his patent for a free-standing molding machine to Automatic Retailers of America, which named the technology Mold-A-Rama. It debuted at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle with a monorail statue, then cutting-edge tech. (The MSI exhibit offers new molds of this first statue.)

By the early ‘70s, however, the ARA was ready to scrap its Mold-A-Rama division. That’s when the Jones family stepped in. William Jones, Paul’s father — now in his 80s, and still a co-owner with his son — bought Mold-A-Rama machines and expanded. They hired freelance artists to craft what became a menagerie of miniature plastic statues:

Alligators and gorillas and devils and Frankensteins and Toledo Mud Hens and Canadian maple leaves and the Sears Tower and eagles and Christmas trees and Mickey Mouse and Kewpie dolls and two types of Abraham Lincoln. Even the bus inside which Rosa Parks made history. For the Milwaukee County Zoo, they make bats, Santa Claus and sea horses. For the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, they make a tiny Henry Ford, an adorable Wienermobile and, ghoulishly, the Lincoln in which JFK was assassinated.

Youths pass by a Mold-A-Rama machine at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. (Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune)

The MSI show includes all these, plus a taste of the process, a brief history of molded plastic and samples of the raw materials. Mold-A-Rama uses plastic made by the conglomerate Honeywell, and since plastic is made from refined oil, Paul Jones cringes every time oil prices soar. Mold-A-Rama, he said, is meant to remain an affordable tchotchke. He doesn’t see why the Mold-A-Rama can’t go on. His own kids are in their 20s and “their generation is not as materialistic. They are more about the experience, and this is both. You get the souvenir, and you get the experience of plastic molded in front of you.

“We’re on trend. I just turned 56 and I have been going to (MSI) since I was 16 and so this is a piece of my life on display there now. My dad’s life. Our family business. You’re proud of it in one breath, and in the next breath? It’s hard to understand that popularity.”

One word: Plastics.

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