When Kenner created the Easy-Bake oven, it provided kids with a safer alternative for practicing their culinary skills, thereby keeping them out of the kitchen and its inherent dangers. Shrinky Dinks, on the other hand, brought them back to their kitchens in droves, eager to watch the shrinking process through the glass window as their artistic creations were transformed into decorative plastic trinkets. Sure, some may have received a few minor burns along the way, but not enough to dissuade them from playing with their beloved Shrinky Dinks, a toy that has remained enormously popular since its inception.
Shrinky Dinks came out of Wisconsin in 1973, straddling the toy and arts & crafts genres. They were invented by two housewives, Betty Morris and Kathryn Bloomberg, as a cub scout project for their sons. Based on a very warm reception, they went into business as K&B Innovations and licensed their product to a number of companies, including Colorforms and Milton Bradley. To date, they have sold upwards of $150 million worth of Shrinky Dinks.
Quite possibly the epitome of polymer chemistry, the Dinks consisted of a plastic sheet that kids could draw and paint on using a variety of media, like markers, color pencils and acrylic paints. The activity set included several pre-made designs but any image could be traced on the sheet or the little artists could wing it freehand. The colored design was then cut out and placed on a cookie pan to bake in the oven, at about 325 degrees. In a matter of seconds the bits of plastic started a shrinking and curling only to end up at roughly one third their original size and nine times thicker. Clearly, this was the strongest black magic. Breathless kiddies everywhere gathered around the oven to chant, “Curl, curl, curl!” and “Shrink, shrink, shrink!”. It was part of the ritual. After the Shrinky Dinks came out of the oven (hopefully handled by an adult) they were allowed to cool and presto, they were ready.
Shrinky Dinks could be made into jewelry, key chains, handles, ornaments, zipper pulls, game pieces and so on. You were only limited by your imagination. The original set had frosted plastic sheets that worked with virtually all manner of painting material, including rubber stamps. Later on, the plastic was available in different colors. Most cartoon characters had a Shrinky Dinks tie-in, from the Smurfs to the Incredible Hulk. The product had wide appeal as it could be trotted out for some rainy day fun or be used by serious crafts types to start a signature jewelry collection.
Shrinky Dinks are still around and have evolved with the times, offering ink jet printer compatible plastic, which makes actual photographs fair game for shrinking. Besides their childhood appeal, they are also being used to aid scientists in the study of microfluidics and disease research. That’s a pretty lofty achievement for a simple arts and crafts toy. Sure, we always knew that Shrinky Dinks were special; we just didn’t realize how much so.
If you spent a few rainy days watching plastic shrink in the oven, maybe even have a scar or two to show for it, we’d love to hear all of your Shrinky Dink memories in our comments section. Meanwhile, we tip our hats to a toy that not only has delighted millions of children, but may contribute to our future in ways we never could have imagined.