Mattel’s Strange Change Machine and other amazing — and dangerous — Thingmaker toys of the 60s

By on September 9, 2015

It’s kinda hard to believe now, but there was a time when parents weren’t helicoptering over their small children every minute of the day, worrying about what trouble they were getting into, and in 1968, when Mattel introduced The Strange Change Machine, it was just the latest in a long line of similarly-themed “electrical” Thingmaker toys which could be used by kids to create their own little plastic bug-like creatures, spiders, snakes and lots of other shapes.

Even though there may be similar toys made today, there is no way the original Thingmaker toys would have been created if it were designed today, because the surfaces of the metal molds would become very hot and small children could easily burn themselves; the U.S. Consumer Producer Safety Commission (CPSC) didn’t even exist before 1972, however, so Mattel was able to sell a ton of these to unsuspecting parents before they stopped manufacturing them in the 70s.

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Thinking back on it now, The Strange Change Machine probably wasn’t as much fun as this TV commercial makes it seem like it was — this ad created by the very clever Carson/Roberts agency in Los Angeles, a hot boutique ad company that Mattel had been working with since 1954; we recently told you about Terry Gilliam working there for eleven months in the mid-Sixties — and even though Mattel eventually discontinued making toys like this following consumer safety concerns over allowing unsupervised children to essentially use a small electric heater as a toy, it probably also had something to do with the fact that a new generations of kids just weren’t as excited as previous kids had been in making their own plastic toys.

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At the start of the Sixties, U.S. toy companies like Mattel were spending millions of dollars on advertising, mostly for the creation and broadcast of TV commercials like these, and each year that amount seemed to climb higher and higher.

In 1961, according to the Advertising Age Encyclopedia of Advertising, they were spending as much as $25 million, which was up nearly 50% from the year before, and for the next five years they would add another $8 million to their TV ad budgets, finally hitting $10 million in ad spending.

During this same time, the sale of U.S.-made toys like these soared, and the top toy companies combined for an estimated $1.3 to $2 billion in sales.

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In 1961 alone, Mattel spent $2.5 million to advertise toys like Hot Wheels and the Barbie doll lines, both of which had been introduced back in 1959. They had signed a year-long contract with ABC’s “Matty’s Funday Funnies” — which aired from 1959-1961 on ABC’s Sunday afternoon schedule (and a 1960-1961 prime-time edition on Friday evenings, later moved to early Saturday nights in the fall of 1961) — to run commercials during the show, in addition to print ads that were published in toy and novelty magazines.

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The Strange Change Machine concept from 1968 was first introduced years earlier, in 1963, as part of Mattel’s “Vac-U-Maker” set of toys. The Vac-U-Form, manufactured by Mattel in the early 60s, used an industrial process called “vacuum forming.”

In this particular toy, The Strange Change Machine would heat up a plastic cube that was clamped inside a see-thru plastic chamber, so you could pretend you were some kind of mad scientist making these little creatures revert back to their original pre-freeze dried form. Once the cube was softened in the heating process, the holder was moved to the other side, over a mold of the object that was to be formed. The child could then press a handle on the unit, creating a vacuum, which would cause the plastic to be sucked down over the mold and form the shape it wanted. When it cooled, a little rubbery toy would be created.

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The Strange Change Machine came with a pair of absolutely-necessary tongs, and a paper play-mat with printed images of a jungle, a central lake, and volcanoes, all meant to represent a kind of “Lost World”-type scenario for the dinosaurs, “prehistoric monsters,” or just really big spiders and snakes that you’d just made. You could also make “Astropods” and “Creaturelings,” such as the “Membrain Man.”

1964 is the year when Mattel officially introduced the Thingmaker machine with their Creepy Crawlers “electrical” toy (so-called because you had to plug it into a wall-socket for it to work). The child would be able to pour or squirt from a bottle a liquid chemical plastic-based substance called Plastigoop, which came in assorted colors. The mold was then heated to about 390-degrees Fahrenheit atop an open-face electric hot plate oven. Once it cooled, using tongs, the child would remove his or her toy from the mold. Obviously, this is when most of the little tiny fingers got burned.

The Thingmaker sold well at first, enough so that Mattel continued to expand and make upgrades on the concept, creating the Triple Thingmaker, Super Thingmaker and the Every Thingmaker packages which offered several different Thingmaker sets in one convenient box.

There were also several exclusive single mold sets, such as the one that made Superman and Tarzan licensed toys, and original Mattel-created toys like Squirtles and Gangly Danglies.

In 1965, they introduced the first Creepy Crawlers upgrade, at first called the Giant Creepy Crawlers, where the child could make a much larger toy from a bigger mold. Those were pretty bitchen due to the bigger size.

Then came Fighting Men, another Thingmaker today, where a child could create mini-soldier figures, using an innovative two-part mold to give the Fighting Men both a front side and a back side. The set also included pieces of wire to place in the figure, making it bend with the bottom-wire protrusions so it was able to stand on a Styrofoam base. Other molds in the set created weaponry and equipment for the Fighting Men to carry into battle.

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That same year, Mattel introduced Creeple Peeple, a five-mold set formed strange heads, arms and feet. You could add these to the top of your pencil, over the erased, forming weird, Troll-like creatures.

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In 1966, came Fun Flowers, with seven molds full of different styles and shapes of flowers and leaves, for use in decorating and design (marketed to young girls, no doubt), and Fright Factory, dedicated to creepy disguises, making pieces such as fake scars, snaggled-teeth, or a third eye for your forehead. Another mold (with a special insert) made a shrunken head, and the last made a dangly skeleton that you could build from spare parts.

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In ’67, the Thingmaker was expanded with a wonderful addition to create Incredible Edibles, which provided a special edible goop called Gobble De-goop which was placed in molds and cooked like regular Plastigoop, but then, once it cooled, you could eat it! We’re sure parents loved the idea that kids could be making their own digestible plastic snacks. Can you imagine this one being manufactured today?

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That same year, Mattel introduced Picadoos, a Thingmaker for budding artists, which provided molds with 10 x 10-space numbered grids. By carefully placing colored Plastigoop in the grid, a child could create decorative artwork in either beads, mosaic tile, or cross-stitch varieties. Again, despite it being designed for both, boys thought this one was for girls, as we recall, and we’re not sure what girls thought because we couldn’t get any of them to talk to us until junior high.

Also in ’67 came Mini-Dragons, with eight molds in this set formed wings, horns, claws, tails, and other body parts, which could be combined into various fantasy creatures.

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By 1968, the Thingmaker concept expanded again both for The Strange Change Machine, and also for Eeeeks!, which like Mini-Dragons, this set of eight molds formed several varieties of mix-and-match legs, bodies, heads, wings, antennae, etc., to create large, bizarre insects.

There was also a variant called Zoofie-Goofies, which had molds in which you could create the heads, bodies and feet of various animals, from cats and dogs to elephants and lions.

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1969 brought DollyMaker, which included five two-sided molds are used to create two styles of little dolls, and a wardrobe of late ’60s fashions and accessories for them. That same year another variant was introduced — Super Cartoon Make — in which the eight molds formed replicas of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters, such as Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Lucy, all characters being licensed from their copyright owners, of course.

The last of the classic Mattel Thingmakers, Jillions of Jewels, came along in 1970. The set had five molds, but instead of the liquid Plastigoop, these formed solid plastic “gemstones” and jewelry frames from two kinds of powdered “Jewel Dust” compounds.

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By this time, Mattel realized that the diminishing sales of their various Thingmaker products might be because parents were starting to realize they were letting their kids actually heat up hot metal molds and pour in a messy plastic goop that could burn or scar their little fingers, or seep out into the carpet of their bedrooms, and so the company slowed down on making new variants, eventually pulling the plug on the entire product line.

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In 1978, Mattel decided that maybe they’d made a mistake in discontinuing one of their most popular toys, historically, and so they revived the Thingmaker; the first new revival in 1978 was called the Thingmaker II and it employed safer technology, using a totally different type of Plastigoop and this time they used plastic molds that were pure crap, but the new goop did not work well, and the bugs and insects that were made in the plastic molds were overall crappier in quality.

The Thingmaker II wasn’t successful enough to continue the revival, despite having this awesome TV ad voiced by actor Jackie Coogan, who played Uncle Festus on the original “Addams Family” TV show.

Mattel still made millions on the other toys they were making, and continued to grow in size as a company, so much so that in 1984, they had to retain a second ad agency, the New York-based Dailey & Associates, for its toy business because its billings with Ogilvy & Mather had grown so big (Mattel remained with the company even after they merged with Ogilvy in late 1970, with the exception of a small assignment made to the Leo Burnett Company sometime in the 1970s).

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The new agency was assigned Hot Wheels miniature cars, which was $6 million in billings. A company spokesman said there was no dissatisfaction at all with Ogilvy’s advertising, not at all — they just had to bring on a second agency after having watched their billings at the agency triple in the previous three years. At the time, Advertising Age listed Mattel as the 36th-largest national advertiser, with total promotion spending estimated at $179.9 million. That’s a lot of toys.

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You can still find these Thingmaker toys on eBay, of course, in various states of condition, often missing some of the necessary components, and other companies have picked up where Mattel left off, making similar toys now (Jakks Pacific began making a similar toy in 2006, and before then, the ToyMax company created their own version of the Creepy Crawlers, in 1992, but they went out of business ten years later).

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • sheri

    ANYONE HAVE INFO ON 1967 THINGMAKER THINGHOLDER VINYL CASE?