If you've ever visited the Brookfield Zoo in suburban Chicago, you might have bought a small plastic souvenir from a vending machine. There's a Quincy connection that is unknown to many zoo visitors. Let's take a look.
A fixture at the Brookfield Zoo since the 1960s are the glass-domed Mold-A-Rama vending machines. For $3 -- originally a quarter -- the machine produces a small plastic souvenir on the spot and dispenses it while still warm.
The Brookfield Zoo has 13 Mold-A-Rama machine producing various animals, including an alligator, dolphin, seal, penguin and gorilla. The Mold-A-Rama machines also can be found at several other locations, including the San Antonio Zoo, the Milwaukee County Zoo, and the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.
The machines have roots with the former J.H. Miller Co.
The J.H. Miller Co. was founded in the late 1930s in Chicago by J.H. "Tike" Miller before it moved to Quincy. It produced various figurines from 1941 through 1959 before the company sought bankruptcy in October 1959, according The Herald-Whig archives.
An Oct. 24, 1943, article in The Herald-Whig said that the factory was the only one in the United State producing Nativity figures. Because of World War II, people were unable to obtain pieces for their Nativity scenes.
The staff of 110 -- 106 were women -- produced 18,000 figures made from plaster of Paris each day.
The company later created a variety of other figurines, including dinosaurs, using plastic injection molding machines.
Miller, along with Millard Helms, who drafted and fabricated Miller's inventions, created the Miller/Helms Associates Coinmatic plastic molding machine. The patent was eventually sold to the Automatic Retailers of America, which created the Mold-A-Rama divison.
A article from WTTW noted that the new machines debuted at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair.
In 1971, Bill Jones bought the machines from Roy Ward, an employee of Mold-A-Rama who had bought several machines and operating locations when the firm was dissolved. Jones formed the William A. Jones Co., which changed its name to Mold-A-Rama Inc., in 2011, but is still operated by his family. The firm operates 63 machines in five states.
The Quincy Museum opened a new exhibit this spring featuring many of the figurines of the J.H. Miller Co.
"Unless you are a collector of toys or are interested in J.H. Miller or worked there, a lot of people don't know much about it, and they're surprised to see that the company was here and the sheer amount of stuff they produced," said Quincy Museum Executive Director Barbara Wilkinson-Fletcher.
The museum includes information about Mold-A-Rama machines in its J.H. Miller exhibit, as well as some of the various figurines, including an early Jiminy Cricket that visitors to Disneyland could purchase.
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