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.
Growing up, I had probably two dozen or so Colorforms sets over the years. It was a wonderful toy in that so much could be done with it - endless stories could be made up with the different people, body parts, and props in each set. Pieces from other sets could be brought in for wider adventures - I seem to remember having the rock group Kiss running around in the world of the Planet of the Apes for a while. Colorforms are unique in that they appeal to both smaller kids and older ones on the same level, and with the same type of play: simply making pictures and letting one's imagination turn them into a story.
Colorforms sets from the 1950's to today are still relatively (compared to other classic toys) inexpensive and appear to be plentiful, for those who may wish to collect them. Their simplicity, aesthetic beauty, and nostalgia factor may make them one of the more valued pop-culture toy collectibles of the next several years.