The future always has the profound appearance of seeming so close and yet so far away. For me, there is no better example of this than the instant-souvenir plastic-molding machine: Mold-A-Rama.

Unbelievably, there are nearly two dozen of these machines still in operation at various locations throughout Chicagoland. Seeing the red T. rex one at the Field Museum, it’s hard not to feel like you’re in some sort of time warp. With its silver-gray design, convex glass lid, and multicolored font borrowed directly from the fifties space age, Mold-A-Rama figures prominently in a number of my childhood memories of trips to various Chicago landmarks. As I get older, I have a hard time remembering anything specific about these excursions, other than the drama of searching throughout Lincoln Park Zoo for the familiar bubble-topped device, which was almost always hidden in some shadowy corner and promised a neon-orange lion for only 50 cents. Usually by the time I spotted the machine, both of my parents were exhausted from chasing the four of us kids and were not inclined to spend another penny.

Now, as a parent with two kids of my own, it’s hard for me not to notice these anachronistic-looking machines as we traverse a place like Tropic World at Brookfield Zoo. What’s still so mesmerizing about Mold-A-Rama after all these years? Watching the metal molds close together and hearing the hiss as the liquid plastic is being injected, you get the feeling you’re witnessing the triumph of modern industry over Time itself—here is how the future world, with its flying cars and robots, will be built. Then, of course, there is the familiar smell—a little waxy—and the incomparable feeling of the hot plastic cooling in your hand. For me, what is being manufactured isn’t just a toy, it’s a memory, a single moment forever frozen in plastic.

Although Mold-A-Rama was first created by Tike Miller back in the fifties and later sold to the William A. Jones Company—a Lyons, Illinois, business—the continued interest in these machines is a little surprising. When one of them is moved to a new spot or one figure is replaced with another—as the yellow lion was recently switched with a green gorilla at Lincoln Park Zoo—a news item is posted on William A. Jones’s website alerting fans of the change. The Internet itself has become a haven for Mold-A-Rama collectors; a recent auction on eBay saw a Paul Bunyan figure sell for $200.

But for me, it’s the act of operating the machine itself, this odd childhood ritual, that’s still most interesting. At our last outing to Brookfield Zoo, possibly trying to make up for what I missed out on, I bought my daughter two Mold-A-Rama animals: a white polar bear and a gray elephant. She held on to the elephant on the car ride home, and then, like most memories, she set it aside in search of something new.


Photography: Todd Urban