Thursday, 7 June 2012

Elephant No. 249: Interlocking Popsicle Sticks

I came across these in a discount store yesterday and thought they might make an interesting elephant. I was useless at popsicle-stick constructions in elementary school, but I thought that maybe the fact that these were interlocking might help. And at least I wouldn't have to glue anything.

The original interlocking popsicle sticks are often said to be the plastic sticks used in Borden-brand ice cream bars. Nicknamed "Elsie Stix" for the Ohio company's bovine mascot, the sticks could be used to produce sturdy plastic shapes. Many people fondly remember begging for a popsicle in the 1970s, just to get the Elsie Stix.

Vintage box for Borden ice milk bars featuring Elsie Stix.

Elsie Stix, however, were predated by interlocking wooden popsicle sticks, developed by the Missouri-based Southern Ice Cream Company in the late 1950s. The wooden sticks—which looked more or less like the ones I have today—were conceived as part of a construction kit, purchased popsicle by popsicle.

Drawings from Thomas R. Korchak's patent application
for the Southern Ice Cream Company's interlocking
popsicle sticks.

The plastic Elsie Stix—known as "Icestix" in many other parts of the world—were originally invented in 1967 by an Israeli artist, also as a construction kit. When Borden marketing director Lyle Smith saw them, however, he thought immediately of using them for the company's ice cream bars, and bought the licensing rights. Following a testing period, Borden began using Elsie Stix in their ice cream, making them at a rate of 500 million a year.

Collection of vintage Elsie Stix.

Many of the Elsie Stix produced by Borden were offered by other companies in cereal boxes and, of course, popsicles—something Borden didn't make at the time. Unfortunately, Lyle Smith bought only the North American manufacturing rights, leaving the Israeli inventor free to license them to other producers throughout the world.

Today, Elsie Stix are no longer made, but are highly sought after as a vintage toy—particularly in the boxed sets that were later manufactured to capitalize on the craze.

Box of Elsie Stix.

The interlocking popsicle sticks I had didn't seem to have deep enough grooves to interlock firmly, but I figured I'd just see what happens. This activity struck me from the outset as being a bit too much like engineering—something at which I really don't excel—so I was pretty much expecting it to collapse in a heap at least once before I was done.

This was the package of interlocking sticks I bought yesterday. The name "Skill-Sticks" printed on the label did not inspire confidence. If it needed actual skill, I was doomed.

Each stick has single square notches, double square notches, and strange triangular cuts. I wasn't sure what the triangle cuts were for, as they don't hold anything very well. Then I realized they're to help you break the sticks. At least, that's what I decided they were for.

Never having used these before, I played a bit before trying to actually build anything. The main activity involves slotting single square notches into other single square notches at right angles, and pushing them as far as they'll go. The two photographs below show my first join.

I started by making a simple square, leaving two long ends that I thought might come in handy for joining on a trunk later. Or not.

Having never built anything like this before, I had no real idea what I was doing. I fiddled with various configurations, and came up with the structure below as a basis for building an elephant head. I had originally thought I'd make an entire elephant, but I really couldn't wrap my mind around how to attach legs with these sticks.

Clearly, there's a reason I'm not an architect.

I continued in much the same way, inserting sticks, taking them out, inserting new sticks, pushing the whole thing back together when it tried to collapse, cursing, pulling out splinters. When I started, I had planned to use only full-length sticks, then realized I would never be able to make a proper elephant that way. I began to quite like the little triangular snap-off points, and made use of quite a few shortened pieces.

I built up various areas, interlocking things as much as I could. One of the drawbacks to these particular sticks is that the centre section has no notches. I got around this by using some of the shorter ends I'd snapped off, but it's not an ideal solution.

The piece eventually stopped trying to fall apart, but it's never going to be the sturdiest construction. I also angled a few of the sticks to make it look a little more interesting. It's virtually impossible to attach anything securely to the angled sticks, and they like to fall off. On the other hand, if you don't manhandle the piece too much, the angled pieces will mostly stay where you put them.

I was relatively pleased with the final piece, given that I'm a terrible engineer—despite growing up surrounded by them. This took me about an hour and about 75 sticks, and is reasonably secure. If I think of it as an abstract, it's even rather pleasing to the eye. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it's a pretty good piece of interlocking-popsicle-stick art.

I'm glad I gave this a try, but we won't be expecting me to pick up a set square and beam compass anytime soon.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Although it seems slightly preposterous, a story from the Third Macedonian War (172–168 B.C.) tells of elephants sliding down a hill on wooden platforms.

In 172 B.C., Rome declared war on Greece. In addition to legions of soldiers, 34 war elephants were part of the contingent. Following a series of small victories, in 170 B.C., the Romans marched to the top of a hill. While the high ground is normally a good place to be in a battle, the Romans found themselves cut off by Greeks on the lower reaches of the hill. This caused supply problems in particular, so the Romans decided to take the lower parts of the hill as well. This raised a problem: how to get the war elephants down a steep hill?

The historian Polybius writes that the Roman commander Quintus Marcus Philippus ordered his soldiers to build collapsible wooden platforms. The idea was that the elephants would sit on these and slide gently down the hill. Despite the fact that elephants are quite surefooted, the platforms were thought to be a better idea.

According to Polybius—who is thought to have heard it directly from Philippus—over two dozen elephants slid down the hill in stages, atop the wooden platforms. Although all of the elephants arrived at the base of the hill without injury, their terrified trumpeting sent the Roman army's pack animals fleeing in all directions.

Victorian illustration of war elephants at the Battle of the
Hydaspes River in 326 B.C.
AndrĂ© Castaigne (1861–1929)

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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