Productive Plastic Playthings

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Productive Plastic Playthings

time machine

The Strange Change Time Machine was aptly named — it seemed to take forever for the toy’s oven chamber to warm up and even longer for each of the creatures to unmold and then cool down.

The 1960s were a golden age for toys in America because of a timely combination of postwar factors. The baby boomers were in their prime toy-buying years (“for ages 6–12”) while the boom in the economy created more purchasing power for their parents. For the first time, toys were sold using network television ads, launching nationwide fads. The graduate of the 60s was told there was a “great future in plastics,” while at the same time the Space Race spurred an interest in science education and technological toys.

Among time-tested playthings, like dolls and trucks, came a new category of toys: “make and play.” There had been creative kid crafts before, like paint-by-number kits or Erector sets, but these modern maker toys inspired a generation of kids to mass-produce their own creations using miniature, at-home versions of industrial manufacturing methods and advanced “space-age” materials.

With clever research and development and bold marketing approaches, Mattel Toys led the way in make and play. Their innovative products included the Vac-U-Form, Thingmaker, and many other cool maker toys.

Designed in 1963 by whiz inventor Jack Ryan, a Yale-educated guided missile engineer (and Zsa Zsa Gabor’s sixth husband — how’s that for an only-in-the-Swingin’ Sixties resume?), Mattel’s Vac-U-Form used air pressure to mold small squares of colorful polystyrene into three-dimensional shapes. Vacuum-forming thermoplastics, the process used by Boeing to make jet airline interiors, was now at the fingertips of kids across America.

And those fingertips often got blisters! Unlike today’s super safe, car-seated and bike-helmeted kids, baby boomers braved the dangers of toys like the Vac-U-Form. Its exposed heating plate reached the skin-sizzling temperature of 350°F. (You can tell it’s Mattel, it’s … Owwwww!) No matter. With the awesome power of the Vac-U-Form, kids cranked out cars, planes, signs, disguises — all kinds of mini toys using the many molds that were available.

Just as innovative as the Vac-U-Form’s design was its marketing. Like Barbie with her never-ending array of clothes (sold separately!), the Vac-U-Form line of toys had dozens of accessories and refill kits for making jewelry, medals, badges, airplanes, animals, boats, military vehicles, and more. A nation of kids was mesmerized by the Vac-U-Form’s TV commercial featuring the magical moment of transformation: molded shapes took form before your eyes, set to the ba-boom beat of timpani.

A familiar smell can trigger a flood of childhood memories, and just one pungent whiff of burning plastic is enough to evoke the Thingmaker, a spinoff of the Vac-U-Form. The same heater that softened stiff sheets of styrene could be used to cure liquid plastisol. This goopy mix of polyvinyl chloride in a solution of plasticizers is used to manufacture soft parts like tool grips, squeezable coin purses, and flexible fishing lures. Renamed Plastigoop and packaged in handy squeeze bottles, the protean plastic came in a dozen colors (including the exotic glow-in-the-dark formula). The Thingmaker’s molds were made from die-cast zinc, the same metal used in toy cap guns, which reproduced each tiny mold detail, from the hairs on a spider to the gruesome stitches on a shrunken head.

Like its older brother the Vac-U-Form, the Thingmaker offered the excitement and danger of high-temperature fabrication techniques. The fun began by filling the mold with various colors of Plastigoop. Heating the mold on the Thingmaker’s oven cured the Plastigoop into a wiggly gel. The last step was to quench the finished mold in a pan of water, making a satisfying blast of steam. The only concession to safety was the wobbly wire handle used to lift the smoking-hot molds.

There were many different themes for Thingmaker’s “Maker-Pak” sets, but the most successful was Creepy Crawlers. The TV commercial (it’s on YouTube) featured a James Mason sound-alike voiceover drolly describing how to scare Mom and annoy newspaper-reading Dad with the wiggly worms and rubbery bugs. Mattel went on to produce Giant Creepy Crawlers (with flocking to make the bugs fuzzy), Creeple People (cute-ugly trolls with interchangeable heads, arms, and legs that connected together on a pencil), Fighting Men (army men with wires for bendable arms), and Fright Factory (shrunken heads and skeletons).

Other toy companies sold similar items. Kenner’s 1964 Mold Master boasted that it “makes solid — not vacuum-formed toys.” Boys could mold army men and mini toy guns that shoot, while girls created small dolls and accessories, including multicolored “miniature teenagers at a birthday party” with tiny bongo drums, record players, and soda glasses.

Perhaps the weirdest heat-powered plaything was the Strange Change Time Machine. Instead of merely molding raw plastic into mini toys, this clever contraption provided endless play with 16 different time capsule creatures. “Create ’em! Crush ’em! Create ’em! Again and again — in the Time Machine!” The time-lapse TV commercial showed a square plastic lozenge magically melt and transform into an octopus. Reheated, the creatures were loaded into a vise-like press and squeezed back into the original square shape, complete with an embossed Mattel logo. A space-age “shape memory” plastic made it all possible. During manufacture the molded plastic creatures were irradiated with a high-energy electron beam that cross-linked the polymer’s molecules, permanently locking them into shape. These extra connections within the shape could be deformed temporarily into a square brick but when reheated they sprang back into their original creature shape.

The look of the toy was pure 1960s futurismo with a snazzy metallic red housing, shiny zinc fittings, and a transparent transformation chamber with a swiveling door. The assortment of creatures included tiny dinosaurs, kooky spacemen, and mini monsters. The instruction sheet flipped over to make a jungle island backdrop. Even the package’s shipping tray was vacuum-formed into a volcanic rock pit. The entire toy was like a sci-fi monster movie set shrunk down into miniature toy form.

The ominous warning stamped on the toy — Caution: Contact with rivets or plastic parts may cause burns — was also from another time, one before the Child Safety Protection Act.

One hugely popular 1960s maker toy did have an infamous safety problem. Like the Thingmaker before it, Incredible Edibles used a heated oven (with a hinged cover in the form of a bewigged, buck-toothed bug) to let kids mold squiggly spiders and squirmy worms. The fresh twist was that the finished product was actually edible. The ingredients listed glycerol and tapioca starch, sweetened with sodium cyclamate and saccharin.

The moldable comestible was dubbed Gobble-Degoop and marketed as “sugarless.” Parents were repelled more by the taste than by the fun “gross-out” theme, but kids gobbled it up. The unforeseen problem was that diabetic kids were sickened by the mixture’s starch, which turned to sugar when digested. After $50 million in sales, the FDA allowed Mattel to put warning stickers on all the toys already in stores instead of recalling them.

An earlier candy-making toy promised real sugar in its most kid-appealing form: cotton candy! Commercial machines were expensive and complicated, with spinning electrical coils and strong motors. A kid’s only chance for the rare treat was a trip to the circus or state fair. But in 1962 Hasbro’s affordable, battery-powered Hokey Pokey Cotton Candy

Machine spun real cotton candy at home anytime.

A red scalloped plastic base supported a deep aluminum drum. Mom loaded a few spoonfuls of sugar into a metal cup and heated it over a kitchen burner. Using the metal tongs, she lifted the cup of molten sugar into place atop the toy’s central shaft and turned on the motor. The molten sugar was flung out of the madly spinning cup in an instant to make one small batch of cotton candy. The metal cup then could be cooled down on the included

asbestos stand. Asbestos? Flying molten sugar? The moon-faced kids illustrated on the package happily twirled their paper cones of cotton candy, sweetly oblivious to any potential domestic dangers.

Toys offer kids a way to emulate grownups and play pretend, and maker toys are no different. Dad’s basement woodworking “man cave” was the inspiration for Kenner’s 1962 Motorized Home Workshop. Although scaled down, the versatile styrene toy could be configured into seven different power tools, including lathe, jigsaw, drill, and sander, just like Dad’s Shopsmith.

The gimmick that made it all safe for Junior? Instead of wood, the raw material was colorful, open-cell urethane foam, and the saw and drills were made of plastic. The battery-powered motor “stopped at the press of a finger.” It was fun to make clouds of foam “sawdust” with the motorized tools as you cut, sanded, and turned your project on the lathe.

When it comes to mass-producing plastic parts, toy companies use a process called injection molding. A two-part metal mold is held tightly closed in a horizontal hydraulic press as molten thermoplastic is injected at high pressure into the mold cavity. The mold is opened and the cooled plastic part is ejected. Unlike vacuum forming or casting, injection molding with its closed mold creates parts with perfect detail on all sides.

What better maker toy than a miniature version of the very process used to make real toys? Mattel’s Injector from 1969 had a plug-in heater and a hand-powered injector piston.

To use it, you just slide open the chamber and insert small plastic pellets (called Plastix). While the plastic melts, choose your mold. A small toggle provides the clamping pressure to hold the mold halves together. Slip the mold under the nozzle and push down firmly on the lever to squirt a piston full of hot plastic into the mold. With different themed versions you could mold your own Hot Wheels Factory car bodies or Western World cowboys and Indians.

Depicted on the packages and molded right into the toys were the company mascots. These peppy personalities delivered TV taglines and were even pressed into service enlivening otherwise bland instruction sheets. Matty Mattel gave tips on vacuum forming, the Hasbro Kid shilled the latest Hassenfeld Brothers offerings, and the Kenner Gooney Bird screeched “It’s Kenner! It’s fun — Squawk!”

So where are the maker toys of today? Social trends have changed. Today’s overscheduled kids don’t have as much free time to spend waiting for long heating and cooling cycles to make a leisurely batch of Creepy Crawlers.

Kids now “grow older younger”: whereas toy manufacturers of yore could market toys to kids ages 6–12, today’s “tweens” are already using computers and getting their first iPods. For them, the toy box is forgotten; they aspire to create with real, adult materials and tools, so they’re at the yarn shop, art store, or Maker Faire, not the toy store. Toymakers must now focus on younger ages that are inherently less patient, capable, or interested.

And despite clever updates by manufacturers to address modern toy safety standards, it’s hard to compete with the high-tech appeal of video games and electronics.

The economy has changed, too: just as manufacturing industries are being replaced by an information-driven service economy, maker toys with their “thing-making” play pattern are giving way to the virtual experiences of electronic games and websites aimed at kids.

Still, the spirit of DIY lives on, and these maker toys engendered an interest and curiosity in many kids who grew up to be the makers of today. What was your favorite maker toy? And what are your favorites today? Tell us at and

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Bob Knetzger

Bob Knetzger ( is an inventor/designer with 30 years of experience making fun stuff.

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