#523: Prehistory

August 31st, 2015

It’s the smell that gets you. Melting, burning plastic searing the air like the reek of an ‘80s perm.

The machine whirs and shakes, not enough to cause concern, but just enough to get the excitement going. It’s a giant, familiar console topped with a clear plastic bubble so you can see the gears and valves shift and move and shake.

If it looks like it was designed when people still said “Space Age,” it’s because it was. Mold-A-Ramas have been the same since the 1960s. Same bubble-topped console, same bit of excitement as the two halves of the mold pull apart and a motorized putty knife shoots out to knock my new triceratops off the metal slope, down into a waiting doorway.

My dino’s still tacky to the touch when I grab it. I’m 12 again. I’m 7.

I stand in the Field Museum and smell the dinosaur, just for a moment.

What I just witnessed was “a method wherein a molten thermoplastic material is forced, under pressure, through the cavity of a mold and is then followed by a blast of compressed air which forces the core of molten plastic from the cavity leaving a wall of solidified plastic against the mold surfaces,” according to the patent John “Tike” Miller filed in 1960.

It all started in the ‘50s, the Mold-A-Rama Inc. website states, when one of Tike’s nativity set pieces broke. He wanted a replacement, but only found full sets for sale. Soon, he and his wife had created a little shop in the basement for plaster nativity sets, selling them in department stores.

They expanded, moved into plastic and opened a factory in Quincy, Ill. He then sold to Automatic Retailers of America Inc. and went to work for them creating what would be known as the Mold-A-Rama.

There are two companies that maintain, sell and service Mold-A-Ramas: Mold-A-Rama Inc. (formerly the William A. Jones Co.) here in Illinois and Replication Devices in Florida.

Between the two, they offer a nation plastic dinosaurs, zoo animals, jet fighters, local buildings or even devils, Santas and Dwight D. Eisenhower. You can get Rosa Parks’ bus, Kennedy’s limo, a bat or the U505 submarine from Mold-A-Rama Inc. You can get the Eiffel Tower, a manatee, a corythosaurus or a Russian Soyuz Space Station from Replication Devices.

And, oh yes, Mold-A-Rama Inc. is hiring in case you want to make $12 to $16 an hour repairing and servicing machines around the Chicago area.

It costs six cents to make each statuette, Replication Devices’ website says. Six cents for a memory.

It’s the smell that gets you, takes you back to a place before words, when getting a souvenir meant begging your dad for a dollar and then making roaring dinosaur sounds all the long car ride home.

The little plastic dinosaur I bought last year sits on my bookshelf, next to much fancier knickknacks. I now own artwork, pottery, baseballs signed by Hank Aaron and Ryne Sandberg.

But there’s only one of those pieces I occasionally pick up and give a little sniff.

Read more about prehistoric life

Read about a much fancier plastic statue

Read a Chicago Tribune profile of Mold-A-Rama’s father-and-son repair team

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