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"no holds barred, no avenue in Toytown left untraveled, no chamber in the Castle Colorforms, unexplored..."
December 2, 2010 8:20 PM   Subscribe

"From 1965 to 1971, we played together, inventing one thing or another.... But, like the bride of Bluebeard, there was one door I was not allowed to enter. That was the door marked “Colorforms”. That alone was off limits. Harry had invented Colorforms, the vinyl plastic pieces that stuck to a shiny surface. And he was convinced that there was no idea or application involving Colorforms, nor could there be, that he had not thought up already.... [H]e would entertain no further discussion on the subject. The very mention of “stick-ons” was off limits. The door to Colorforms was shut and bolted. Until 6 years later, through a curious set of circumstances, I broke it down once and forever." The Colorforms Years is Mel Birnkrant's illustrated history of two decades of ups and downs working with Colorforms, the first plastic-based creative toy and one of the first toys promoted in television commercials.

If you grew up in the 1970s, you will probably recognize many of these toys: Pound Puppies, Peanuts, Mickey Mouse, Holly Hobbie, McDonalds, and more.
posted by jessamyn (68 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
I was just recently thinking about Colorforms.

They really tasted good.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


They really tasted good.

How funny...I was just coming in to post that Colorforms are the absolute bane of eldest children everywhere because they are CRAZY EDIBLE. My little sisters ate them, the board you placed them on and the box they came in.
posted by jrossi4r at 8:30 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


I AM the eldest sister but I couldn't resist.

Great post - interesting to think about the development of this oddball little toy made of space-age polymers. I am pretty sure I had the Lucy set and I definitely had a different Snoopy set. That Holly Hobbie dollhouse with the lights is the SHIT.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on December 2, 2010


I saw a link to one of the in-between pages in someone's Tumblr and just looking at the old toys inspired this totally weird sense of longing, like I had really wanted these toys and in some cases I couldn't even really remember if I had had them or not. The story that is woven around the photos is pretty interesting, how the guy worked pretty much for royalties only and how the company flourished and then floundered. The rest of his site is pretty interesting too.
posted by jessamyn at 8:34 PM on December 2, 2010


The story just isn't about the reusable decals, though. That's a neat breakdown of the oddball stuff the company marketed.

The first time I heard chloroform referenced in a TV show as a little kid I confused it with Colorform and wondered how in the world the stickers could knock people out.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wow, I was just thinking about Colorforms this morning. And Spirograph and Weebles.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:36 PM on December 2, 2010


A. I loved Colorforms. I had the Sesame Street set.

B. Is jessamyn eligible for best post December?
posted by Night_owl at 8:37 PM on December 2, 2010


Don't forget about Shrinky Dinks.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:38 PM on December 2, 2010


They really tasted good.

They lost their stick if they got dirty, so you licked the back to get them to stick to the board. That was how you learned they tasted good! After that first lick, you were a goner.
posted by weebil at 8:38 PM on December 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is just great. I remember having a Batman set, but not the one shown on this page.
posted by marxchivist at 8:39 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


OMG, I never knew you could eat them! I ate PlayDoh, but it never occured to me that Colorforms could be edible. I wonder what other culinary delights I missed out on in my childhood.
posted by amyms at 8:42 PM on December 2, 2010 [4 favorites]


For the record, I had the Tricky Mickey Magic set (1973) and my little brother had the Colorforms Sesame Street set (1977). Between Colorforms and our felt board, we could entertain ourselves for hours.

Oh, heh. I also had the Holly Hobby sewing cards.
posted by weebil at 8:52 PM on December 2, 2010


Just seeing the word "Colorforms" instantly and vividly invokes their smell.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:54 PM on December 2, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wow, that Tricky Micky story is interesting [they got sued, but not why you might think] but the David Cassidy story on the same page is crazy!

The final photographs were a disaster. No one had anticipated the inappropriateness of male body hair. Photoshop hadn’t been invented, yet, to shave his legs digitally, and airbrushing would have been more expensive than taking the shot over again. So Bill looked for another model willing to use Nair.

When that search proved unsuccessful he came up with a solution that has remained a secret til this day. He posed the shot with a young girl instead. A multitude of little girls, and David too, never knew they were dressing and undressing a prepubescent young lady with David Cassidy’s head.

posted by jessamyn at 8:57 PM on December 2, 2010


Wow, that David Cassidy Colorform..! All this time I was unaware he was a never-nude.
posted by biddeford at 9:26 PM on December 2, 2010


I loved Colorform sets when I was a kid. The Raggedy Ann dress-up doll is one of my earliest memories. I can remember playing with it for hours.

The final photographs were a disaster. No one had anticipated the inappropriateness of male body hair.

You know, when I saw the picture of that set, before I even read the text, my first thought is "I wonder if his pants will have pubic hair sticking out of them?" because I vividly remember being fascinated and horrified as a kid by a poster of David Cassidy in a sexy bare-chested pose and unbuttoned jeans, with the top of his pubic hair showing. I'm pretty sure it was hanging in the bedroom of somebody's older teenage sister but I can't remember who.

Weirdly, I googled for this image and found a poster with him in the pose I remember [nsfw] but he had NO PANTS ON and you can see most of his bush. And now I'm wondering which set of parents in the wholesome neighborhood I grew up in actually let their kids decorate their bedroom with soft porn???
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 9:30 PM on December 2, 2010 [2 favorites]


wait, what? not only was I deprived of these character sets (oh no, just geometric shapes in primary colors 'round the homestead, for optimum blank slate creative stimulation...) but I never considered chewing on them. I feel robbed.

(playdoh and elmer's paste didn't stand a chance around me, though.)
posted by squasha at 9:39 PM on December 2, 2010


Shrinky Dinks, go toe to toe with Lego for toys most likely to be repurposed for DIY biotechnology.

I realize that my idea of play is atypical.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:44 PM on December 2, 2010 [3 favorites]


I had the Q-bert set... the cube pyramid wasn't the most dynamic background, and the Q-bert characters weren't known for their elaborate stories and adventures, but I was really into Q-bert so that was all right.
posted by rifflesby at 9:47 PM on December 2, 2010 [1 favorite]


His early stuff was so much more interesting than the licensed crap he worked on in the later years.
posted by empath at 10:43 PM on December 2, 2010


I just finished this... saga. So, so interesting to hear about this.
posted by Night_owl at 11:05 PM on December 2, 2010


Thank you for this. This is one of the coolest things I've ever read on ze blue.
posted by Senor Cardgage at 11:24 PM on December 2, 2010


Castle Dracula! OMG! I LOVED my Castle Dracula set! Never tried to eat it, though. What'd they taste like? Holy jeez, it couldn't have been more than 2 weeks ago that I was talking to someone about colorforms and now here they are. Too sweet! Thank you so much, jessamyn, for bringing back a small part of my mid-seventies youth.
posted by frodisaur at 12:08 AM on December 3, 2010


You fancy modern rich kids with your Colorforms...all I had was a used homemade flannel board and enough crudely cut and glued figures to tell the most boring stories in the whole goddamn Bible. I didn't even have the figures to do the Song of Solomon or the story of Jephthah, either, and had to make do with performing that eye-rollingly dull story about Jacob stealing Esau's birthright by letting his blind ol' dad feel him up while he wore a back hair wig made out of a goat.

Flannel tastes just about like you'd think it would. Old pajamas.

I knew that smell, though. Every time we got a new shower curtain, I'd lock myself in the bathroom, twirling my skinny carcass up in it like a cocaine-crazed starlet with her first full-length mink coat while my hair stood on end like a Phyllis Diller wig from all the static.

Sweet, sweet plastic.
posted by sonascope at 4:05 AM on December 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


Also, god damn: Holly Hobbie pretty much was the 70s for me.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 4:12 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


They really tasted good. --- I never dreamed of eating them, but I loved their smell. Probably some sort of polyethylene-glutamate or some other braincell killing stuff.
posted by crunchland at 5:07 AM on December 3, 2010


This reminds me of my not-so-secret plan to build a website devoted to all the awesome toys I wanted but my parents refused to buy for me.
posted by SMPA at 5:21 AM on December 3, 2010


What, no love for Shrinky Dinks?
posted by elizardbits at 5:34 AM on December 3, 2010


A friend and I created our own "Spy vs Spy" felt boards. We were so DIY I feel slightly scared thinking back on it, but it lets me look down on kids these days.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:40 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


Harumph. They never took me up on my idea to produce an educational toy based on these things - teach kids a valuable lesson about microbes.

Fecal colorforms.

Yeah.
posted by kcds at 5:41 AM on December 3, 2010


Ah, the Outer Space Men. They were great, and served as the perfect foils for the Major Matt Mason astronauts.
posted by aught at 5:46 AM on December 3, 2010


The flannel board is so ripe for a revival.
posted by Miko at 5:57 AM on December 3, 2010


My cousin Janie had the Holly Hobbie general store set and I coveted that for years and years. I still think about it. Pickles. It had pickles. And a host of other things I can't remember. She didn't even like it as much as I did, but sometimes she wouldn't let me play with it.
posted by PuppyCat at 6:06 AM on December 3, 2010


Twist-O Change-O 1972! That red knob! Thanks Mel!
posted by gubo at 6:07 AM on December 3, 2010


You fancy modern rich kids with your Colorforms...all I had was a used homemade flannel board and enough crudely cut and glued figures to tell the most boring stories in the whole goddamn Bible.

Lucky. I always wanted a flannel board. That was pretty much the highlight of Sunday school for me. Easily amused, I was.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:09 AM on December 3, 2010


What was it with Sunday School and flannel boards? I don't think I've ever seen them outside of that context.
posted by JoanArkham at 6:27 AM on December 3, 2010


all I had was a used homemade flannel board

Luxury.
posted by theredpen at 6:30 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


What was it with Sunday School and flannel boards?

We also had one in Kindergarten. I remember the Goldilocks and the Three Bears flannel board. My guess is that this marvelous 1930s teaching technology held on in Sunday Schools rather than most other settings because of the near total lack of any funds for Sunday school activities in mainline churches, prior to the recent evangelical revival.
posted by Miko at 6:44 AM on December 3, 2010


This thread reminded me of Presto Magix, and in fact if you look for them on Amazon the related search suggestion is "colorforms."
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 6:45 AM on December 3, 2010


I had Kermit the Frog! Never tried to eat him, though.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:11 AM on December 3, 2010


A multitude of little girls, and David too, never knew they were dressing and undressing a prepubescent young lady with David Cassidy’s head.

In fact, the entire third season of The Partridge Family was shot with a prepubescent young girl standing in for David Cassidy, with his head supered in later on, while he went on super-secret undercover missions with the Green Berets in 'Nam. At least, that's how Danny Bonaduce remembers it.
posted by briank at 7:16 AM on December 3, 2010 [2 favorites]


Very neat! The early part of this took place during my grade-school years and definitely brought back some memories. Loved the David Cassidy story! Lots of other good anecdotes, but one that really stood out for me was also from '73:

But because they were funded publicly, the folks at “Children’s Television Workshop” were extremely cautious and uncertain if it would be appropriate to license the property for “toys” at all. The overriding rule was that everything had to be “educational”.

Things sure have changed since those days.
posted by TedW at 7:18 AM on December 3, 2010


These toys were just a few years before my prime toy-playing years, so I don't have a lot of nostalgia for them, but the inside-baseball account of his time as a designer is just amazing. I love these kinds of professional narratives, and the writer has a real talent for putting the pieces together in a way that's entertaining for someone not already invested in the story.

Great, great link.
posted by pts at 7:23 AM on December 3, 2010


I don't think I've ever seen them outside of that context.

There was a local kid's television show out here. The host's name was Uncle Gus or something. He had a flannel board which he would use to do word puzzle type things. This must have been in the early seventies. If you think flannel boards are a snore in person, imagine how they translate to television.
posted by jessamyn at 7:24 AM on December 3, 2010


Fecal colorforms.

Isn't that is the end result of the aforementioned edibility?
posted by exogenous at 7:30 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


To clarify, though it was I initially noted their good taste, I never ingested them. It was just a pleasure to hold them in your mouth. As weebil said, you discovered the taste while trying to restore their stickiness, and from that point on it was hard to resist.
posted by Miko at 7:32 AM on December 3, 2010


One of my all-time favorite Simpsons gags is when Homer thinks he's disarming Marge but instead of using chloroform, he's covered her in Colorforms.
posted by ao4047 at 8:13 AM on December 3, 2010


What a rush - I distinctly remember afternoons making shrinky-dinks and doing those rub-ons you could get in the grocery store toy aisle.
posted by polyhistoric at 8:28 AM on December 3, 2010


Ok, page 15. The shame-on-you article that references "Tummy Ache". Is that the same Judith Regan who works for Rupert Murdoch, and that tried to sell OJ's "If I Did it" book?

If so, can we get her Kackel Dackel (previously) for Christmas?
posted by condour75 at 8:34 AM on December 3, 2010


When I think of Colorforms, I always remember my sister crying because our dog ate Holly Hobbie's broom. Her little house was never quite as clean, although that didn't prevent Colorform GI Joe from making frequent visits.
posted by orme at 8:39 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


The parallel seventies technical engineering weirdness that went along with the flannel boards was this weird self-contained projector with a record player on top (not the record player with a projector on top, as made by Dukane) and a projection screen underneath. It looked sort of like a teleporter accident merged a TV and a kids' record player into a monstrosity of brown plastic, woodtone accents, and fake TV controls.

You had this film strip in a cardboard carrier shaped like a hockey stick, stick it into a slot, push it all the way down, and put on a little record. The film carrier was mechanically geared to the record, so as it played, it would advance slowly through the film frames in sync to the proprietary recording, boring an entire Sunday School class nearly to death with a series of sketchy drawings of Joseph and his stupid coat of many colors (mostly harvest gold, olive, and brown, since it was 1975 after all).

The narrator had that deep breathy man's voice that bible stories always used back then, and the Sunday School teacher I had a huge crush on, Beverly, would desperately arrange and rearrange the flannel board in sync with the scenes, because nothing quite fills you with humility in the face of the awesome power of The Lord like a harried squirrel of a girl in glasses frantically manipulating flannel in time with a record and bad slides.

Of course, we'd never have such an ostentatious luxury in our household, so I kept thinking of ways to somehow surreptitiously stroll off with it after Sunday School so I could watch the racier offerings from Disney, which would presumably not drive me to daydreaming about what it would be like to ride on the handlebars of Beverly's banana-seat bike.

My previous venture in stealing from the church, a devious plot that had me purloin our classroom's Chick-U-Bator by secreting it away under my coat like the sign of the first-ever Presbyterian male virgin birth started out successfully enough. Unfortunately, my inability to articulate a remotely believable explanation as to precisely why there was suddenly a quail chick loose in my room got me caught quail-handed, and the Chick-U-Bator and its associated chick were returned, unharmed, to the bosom of Christ.

The closed-door session in the aftermath with my parents, my pastor, and Mrs. Pat, the director of the Sunday School program, was enough to convince me that I'd probably best content myself with bitterly violating the tenth commandment over that little record player and learning an important lesson about the painful delight of desire without fulfillment that would become valuable to me in an entirely different context some time after puberty.
posted by sonascope at 8:53 AM on December 3, 2010 [7 favorites]


If you think flannel boards are a snore in person, imagine how they translate to television.

We had a show with a woman who taught reading using a flannel board on Saturday morning. It was painful and I mostly played with toys while she Bob Ross-ed her way through Dick and Jane, but I always turned it on because I didn't want to miss the start of cartoons.
posted by weebil at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2010


Team shrinky dinks. Colorforms were for suckers. with shrinky dinks you could make keychains and ...... keychains.
posted by Ad hominem at 9:30 AM on December 3, 2010


> with shrinky dinks you could make keychains and ...... keychains.

Don't forget Xmas tree ornaments, custom board game pieces, and calling cards for assassins.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:34 AM on December 3, 2010


this weird self-contained projector with a record player on top

The Show 'N' Tell, the toy of my dreams when I was 6. I remember first seeing one at the home of one of my mother's friends, forced to play with her unknown-to-me child, and spending the entire time watching the half-dozen filmstrips, while the other kid busied himself with some other toy he wasn't already bored to death with.

I'll bet there were Colorforms there, too. Never ate one, though.
posted by briank at 9:38 AM on December 3, 2010


I remember my Colorforms set being sort of dark, weird and trippy. When you lit it up from the back there were skeletons and ghosts that appeared!! It was actually a little unsettling to play with it. Nonetheless it occupied me for hours and hours.

Flipping through this site, I realized it was the Mickey Mouse Magic Glow Fun House play set. Even looking at it now I find it pretty psychedelic. Thanks, Mom and Dad!
posted by medeine at 9:41 AM on December 3, 2010


I love this post so much. I want to go out and find some Colorforms and lick them immediately, though I do doubt they would be as satisfying as eating the feet off Barbies, as I did when I was a kid.

I've said too much. I always blamed the mangled Barbie feet on the dog.
posted by bayliss at 10:00 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


When you lit it up from the back there were skeletons and ghosts that appeared!! It was actually a little unsettling to play with it. Nonetheless it occupied me for hours and hours.

Wow, are you sure this isn't some sort of acid flash-forward? I just had triangles, circles, and squares.
posted by theredpen at 10:14 AM on December 3, 2010


Presto! Change-o! I had the Mickey Magic set and even now I can remember vividly its appearance and feel. I will definitely try to find some analog for my daughter...when she is a little less likely to nom them.
posted by Kafkaesque at 10:41 AM on December 3, 2010


I don't think I ever put Colorforms in my mouth, but Barbie feet? That's good nomming.
posted by JoanArkham at 11:41 AM on December 3, 2010 [1 favorite]


I had forgotten how many Colorform sets I had until I spent several hours at this site - the Snoopy magic hat one was my favorite, but the one where Snoopy and the kids camped by the river ruled too. And I'm sure I had a Holly Hobbie, and ...

BTW, Shrinky Dinks are infinitely more fun now that you can design and print your own.

Oh, and I had to know - Yes, you can still buy Colorforms. Maybe not the rub-on transfers, though.
posted by Jaie at 12:41 PM on December 3, 2010


I am halfway through this lengthy narration and totally engrossed. Thanks so much for finding this.
posted by Kafkaesque at 1:34 PM on December 3, 2010


...but Barbie feet? That's good nomming.
I never chewed on my Barbies, but I did make barbiepedes.

You see, Barbies were (and the cheaper ones still are) made of six pieces: a torso with a peg and four holes and a head (which slipped over the peg) and two arms and two legs (which had pegs that snapped into the holes on the torso). Barbie's leg-pegs could fit into Ken's arm-holes, and Ken's arms would similarly fit as Barbie's legs. Also, the head-pegs could be made to fit into the leg-holes on either torso form, allowing for compound bodies.

Given that knowledge, you can probably work out for yourselves what sort of construction ensued. I went on quite happily until I demonstrated this process to whatever adult was responsible for giving me fashion dolls (it wasn't either of my parents) and I was never given another Barbie again. Who knew there was a wrong way to play with dolls?
posted by Karmakaze at 6:57 PM on December 3, 2010 [5 favorites]


I just found the first link myself a few days ago and posted it on my Twitter! I only remember having a Muppet Show colorform set (best set ever??), but apparently we had Holly Hobbie and Sesame Street, too. I miss Colorforms.. Remember when kids toys didn't need batteries? Or when kids didn't need a television or computer to have fun and/or learn? What the hell happened?

I just saw a sale advertisement for Shrinky Dinks today; I had no idea they still made them, but you can get them at Rite Aid for $3.99 next week apparently! No joke, they also had Pet Rocks at the same price. Now, that's just making a mockery of justified nostalgia!
posted by Mael Oui at 8:00 PM on December 3, 2010


"Flannel boards"? Excuse me, but I never got the memo where they changed the name of felt boards. But it was definitely felt, not flannel, I assure you.

The Colorforms have me completely confused, and if not for the fact they don't matter, I'd be having a reality crisis. I remember these things from WAY before any of the various sets you mention, and do not remember having seen them in later decades.
posted by Goofyy at 5:30 AM on December 6, 2010


The pieces were felt, but wherever we had one in my life on the East Coast, it was called a "flannel board." Googling bears out that it's an alternate name, though not as popular apparently, and there's even a set of results for "felt/flannel boards" for those on the fencea,d even The Felt Source calls them "felt flannelboards." In fact, I think the backing of those I remember was flannel, and the pieces were felt, so that the flannel provided a little nap for the felt to stick to. Instructions formaking one here recommend using flannel for the backdrop.
posted by Miko at 5:57 AM on December 6, 2010


Thanks Miko. I came back hoping someone had explained that. I had checked Wikipedia, and just found the reference to flannel boards. Didn't occur to me to google the terms.
posted by Goofyy at 8:17 PM on December 6, 2010


Man, it took me almost a week to finish reading that epic story. I like that even though he enjoyed his toy-inventing career, he considered it a distraction from his real vocation of collecting Mickey Mouse memorabilia.

Also, you can make your own shrinky-dinks out of clear #6 plastic (often found in take-out containers). The more you know!
posted by moonmilk at 6:32 AM on December 9, 2010


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