When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with the Mold-A-Rama, the injection molding vending machine popular in the 1960s. For a quarter, you got to watch through the clear plastic dome as the machine made and dispensed a plastic souvenir. Gas stations, restaurants, and souvenir shops along I-95 had them. As my family traveled many summers to visit my retired grandparents in Florida, I would enthusiastically hunt down all of the Mold-A-Rama machines along the way. Sinclair gas stations had dinosaurs (their logo was a brontosaurus) and I had all of those, and stores in Florida had alligators, dolphins, and pink flamingos. I had all of those, too.

The figurine that I cherishd the most was Hotei, the Chinese and Japanese god of contentment and happiness. We went out to a kitschy-themed Chinese restaurant one night in Pompano Beach (where every booth was a pagoda island with koi-filled streams and bridges between the tables). They had a Mold-A-Rama in the lobby and at first I was thoroughly disappointed that it was dispensing Hoteis. I knew nothing about him and thought him an odd little Buddha-bellied fellow. The ornate placemats in the restaurant soon filled me in. Hotei is a trickster god who likes to laugh, play pranks and games, surrounds himself with laughing children, and gives out candy. From his overloaded sack, he also distributes food and essentials to the poor. So, basically Santa Claus as a spiritual deity. To a young Catholic kid, this was mind-blowing stuff. For years afterwards, my green Mold-A-Rama Hotei lived on my desk at home and watched over me while I slept.

Hotei, guardian of children AND patron of bartenders. My favorite Mold-A-Rama souvenir from my childhood.

All of this came back to mind when Make:’s Senior Editor, Caleb Kraft, posted pictures of the Mold-A-Rama in the Henry Ford Museum while covering the Detroit Maker Faire. The Ford Mold-A-Rama spits out copies of the Oscar Myer Weinermobile, which is also housed at the museum. Here’s a short video Caleb shot.

Side Note: As our resident pop product historian, Bob Knetzger, points out: “The Weinermobile was designed by Milwaukee’s Brooks Stevens, the same guy who designed that boomerang shaped Formica pattern, the Miller High Life logo, and who coined the term ‘planned obsolescence’ (which he meant as a good thing, and was misunderstood by many).”

The Mold-A-Rama was invented in the late 1950s by an Illinois man, J.H. “Tike” Miller. When his Christmas nativity scene went missing a precious figure, he discovered that stores only sold full sets, not individual pieces. So, he decided to make some of his own in the basement. He cast them in plaster at first, and he and his wife’s creations became popular enough that he scaled up the operation and started selling them. Soon, he began experimenting with casting plastic, then injection molding, eventually ending up with the souvenir casting machine that would become the Mold-A-Rama.

When the Mold-A-Rama company was dissolved in the early 1970s, William A. Jones, an accountant from another vending machine company, bought a few of the remaining machines. He would eventually buy all of the remaining machines, creating the William A. Jones Co. In 2011, the company officially changed its name back to Mold-A-Rama, Inc. There are currently somewhere between 100-150 Mold-A-Rama machines in operation throughout the US.

So how does a Mold-A-Rama work? Here’s part of the description from How Stuff Works:

Using hydraulics, the two molds move toward each other until they are pressed together, forming a complete seal except for holes in the bottom area of the mold for input and output of material and air. The mold halves are each hollow, with two holes at the top to allow coolant (either antifreeze or water) to constantly flow through them via attached tubes.The machines perform injection blow-molding to create figurines while the customer watches through a window. You enter the required amount of money, and the machine springs to life. Through a glass window, you can see two aluminum molds with various tubes and rods attached to them, each the reverse form of one half of a figure, such as an animal or building.

[…]

The polyethylene plastic is put into the machine’s hopper as pellets. They are brought to and kept at temperatures anywhere from 185 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (85 to 121 Celsius), depending on the melting point of the type of polyethylene. The melting is caused by steam running through coils in the holding tank. The type of plastic used has varied over time and location, and today a more durable blend is used in many of the machines, although Honeywell still makes a lower density polyethylene blend closer to the original that is still used in some Mold-A-Ramas.

At a time in which modernism seemed so intent on hiding mechanism–the gears, pulleys, motors, and hoses that powered the age–there was something special about the Mold-A-Rama showing you the industrial nitty-gritty of injection molding, even graphically illustrating each step. For this budding maker and armchair engineer, there was magic in this machine that could make and instantly dispense trickster gods and long-dead dinosaurs. It’s a comfort to know that the charm of this Atomic Age vending machine refuses to die.

The Mold-A-Rama site is not very substantial, but it does offer a brief history of the device, locations where you can find one, and what molds are currently in use where. Oh, and by the way, your magically-dispensed trinket now costs $2.00.