Lately I've been keeping my eye out for Colorforms at garage sales and thrift stores. I can remember getting Colorforms sets quite a few times during the 80's for Christmas or birthdays and they were a lot of fun until you lost all the pieces. A few years back I found a large amount of the 70s/80s sets all mixed up in zip-lock bags at a garage sale and I bought them just for the fun of it. Recently I've been finding quite a few complete sets, some of them never opened.
Here's a list of the Colorforms sets from the 80's. You may remember having one or more of these, they created a lot of sets based on whatever was popular for kids at the time.
MISS PIGGY DRESS UP SET
E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL ADVENTURE PLAYSET
E.T. DRESS UP SET
CABBAGE PATCH PLAYHOUSE
MARVEL SUPER HEROES PLATSET
BARBIE DRESS UP SET
A-TEAM ADVENTURE SET
DUNGEONS & DRAGONS ADVENTURE SET
Q*BERT PLAY SET
MICHAEL JACKSON DRESS UP SET
ROBOT MAN & FRIENDS
MUPPET BABIES PLAY SET
SECTAURS WARRIORS OF SYMBION ADVENTURE SET
WUZZLES PLAY SET
POUND PUPPIES PLAY SET
MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE ADVENTURE SET
THUNDERCATS 3-D PLAY SET
ERNIE & BERT PLAYHOUSE
SILVERHAWKS ADVENTURE SET
POPPLES PLAY SET
THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS PLAY SET
MICKEY MOUSE PLAY HOUSE
BIG BIRD PLAY SET
THE CALIFORNIA RAISINS PLAY SET
LOVABLE DINOSAURS AND THE CAVE KIDS
PEE WEE'S PLAY SET
ALF CARTOON PLAY SET
COOL TIMES BARBIE
Usually the set contained a medium sized board used as a background. Sometimes a larger fold-out board for a bigger "adventure set". There were also dress-up sets which were more like paper dolls where instead of a background board you just applied the vinyl clothes and accessories to a particular character who was just a cut-out and could be placed upright with a stand.
As with many classic toy origins, the beginning of Colorforms starts with an interesting story. In this case, Harry and Patricia Kislevitz were a married couple attending New York University together but who found themselves (like most students) rather low on funds; when their bathroom needed painting, instead of purchasing the more expensive paint they instead tried sticking thin, colored sheets of vinyl on the wall (probably as a proto-beatnik pop art happening). It didn't quite work out, but the Kislevitzes were interested to find that their houseguests were spending great amounts of time in their bathroom - playing with the colored vinyl pieces and the pair of scissors that had been used to cut them. Naturally, a money-making idea developed therefrom.
Purchasing rolls of vinyl in the different primary colors, the couple started trying to market their new toy idea to various local retailers, and soon large orders were being placed. The original toy (whose name simply referred to the 'color forms' the shapes of vinyl took) was meant to be primarily an educational one - small children could create their own unique, abstract art pieces with the little pieces of plastic. Nevertheless, it was an instant success, and soon the young couple moved their headquarters to a house in New Jersey - and later several factories in the area.
The big moment for Colorforms came, however, when the idea was conceived of actually using characters within the sets - giving children a more humanized, imagination-based play than the previous sets of shapes, numbers, and letters. Popeye was the first licensed character, starting in 1957; soon others would follow, including Mickey Mouse, the Peanuts gang, and various other movie, TV, and comic characters.
Colorforms continued to grow over the years to the point where over one billion box sets have been sold worldwide. In 1997 the Kislevitzes sold the company to Toy Biz, which in turn sold it to University Games the next year. Regardless of ownership, however, Colorforms are still being produced, in affordable sets and utilizing characters that kids love.
About a month ago I found two full sets of the E.T. Colorforms Adventure Set at the thrift store. Neither of them had been opened and were still sealed in the cellophane. I paid a dollar for both of them and opened up one so me and the kids could play with it. I was surprised at how something so simple could entertain not only my kids but a bunch of the neighbor kids too. Just goes to show how timeless the toy line still is. There's also a bunch of humorous youtube animations done using Colorforms I've seen lately.
Here's some scans/pics of a couple of my recent Colorform finds. P.S. (don't eat the blue ones).
1982 E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL ADVENTURE PLAYSET
1980 MISS PIGGY DRESS-UP SET