OHIO VALLEY — Thanks to the wonderful displays of Holiday blow molds by the Davidson and Parsons families in Meigs County, there has been an interest in learning more about them.
To explore the history and manufacturing of blow molds, we need to begin with flamingos and art school graduate Donald Featherstone.
Featherstone graduated from the school of the Worcester Art Museum in 1957 and accepted a job with Union Products, a maker of plastic lawn ornaments. His position involved sculpting three dimension animals that would be used in making molds to produce the ornaments.
His first assignment was a duck. So determined to shape it accurately, he purchased a live one to use as a model. He was next tasked with sculpting a flamingo, and since none were readily available he worked from National Geographic photos, and the now iconic Pink Flamingo was born.
Plastic blow molds have been produced in the United States using a manufacturing process termed blow-molding beginning in the 1940s. First created for glass making, the technique, which forms and joins together hollow parts, was retooled for use with plastics after their development for commercial use in the early 1900’s.
The origins of the blow molding process are attributed to Syrians glass workers in the first century BC. Egyptians further developed the art of blow molding in 1700-1600 B.C. The process continued to be used and was refined in Europe during the middle ages.
The United States developed new techniques and machinery for producing glass using the blow mold method, which led to the development of a process for its mass production in the last 1920’s.
Inventors Enoch Ferngren and William Kopitke are credited with the discovery and development of the blow molding process for plastics while working on a way to make the glass making process more consistent. The blow-molding machine they created gave birth to plastic manufacturing in the United States.
Creating a blow mold ornament begins with the design and sculpting of the object to be replicated. This model is used to make a mold from steel or aluminum that is precision-machined to form their specific features. Next a liquid material, in this case plastic, is poured into a heated barrel, mixed, and fed into the mold’s cavity. Depending on the type of plastic, temperatures range between 400 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. It is then inflated with air that forces the plastic to the interior surface of the mold. Water channels carved into the mold aid the cooling process. After the plastic cools, the mold is opened and the item removed. Sometimes the plastic liquid is colored for certain intentionally colored pieces, and sometimes the plastic is painted after the blow mold has hardened and dried.
Featherstone is the best known designer of blow mold figures, and his artistic creations have inspired movie makers to include his flamingos in their productions. A recent example is the 2011 Disney movie “Gnomeo and Juliet” that featured a pink-flamingo character named Featherstone.
While blow mold ornaments continue to be produced, many of the originals, especially those designed by Featherstone, have become highly collectable. Enthusiasts have formed clubs to promote and protect these vintage pieces, and the ornaments, both old and new, can be found in almost every Holiday display during the Christmas season.
Featherstone continued designing until his death in 2015 and is fondly remembered for his prolific and detailed sculptors, but it was the pink flamingo he named Phoenicopterus ruber plastics in the 1950s that brought these plastic ornaments to the American stage.
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Lorna Hart is a freelance writer for Ohio Valley Publishing.