VACUUM PUMPED: Figs. A and B: Inventor Jack Ryan’s
Vac-U-Form allowed kids to mold plastic into 3D toys.
Fig. C: Each kit supplied more molds, more projects,
and more sheets of plastic, including both transpar-
ent and metallized chrome in gleaming colors.
Fig. D: After 3 minutes on the 110-volt plug-in heater,
the softened plastic was stretched and formed over
a mold with a few quick strokes of the pump handle.
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