American History Highlights Celluloid and the Dawn of the Plastic Age

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"There are plastics in your toaster, in the blender and the clock, in the lamp and in the roaster, on the door and in the lock, in the washer and the dryer and the garden tools you lend, in your music amplifier and electric fryer—you have got a plastic friend!" Or so goes a ditty from the 1964 World's Fair touting the ever-loving glory of that synthetic significant other in all our lives—plastic! It's a material that's has become so ubiquitous in our culture that we tend not to think about it too much. At least not until it comes time to take out the recycling. But from whence did all these plastic goods come? A new display at the American History Museum takes a look at celluloid—the granddaddy of all  modern plastic materials.

So what exactly got the ball rolling on plastics? It was, well, balls. Before the advent of synthetics, billiard balls were made from ivory, which was both scarce and expensive. (Not to mention the ethical issues that arise from harvesting ivory, but somehow methinks that wasn't a huge concern way back when.) Enter inventor John Wesley Hyatt who—in spite of professional chemists' warnings of causing an explosion—blended camphor with nitrocellulose and produced a hard, moldable substance he dubbed "celluloid." Patented in 1869, Hyatt and his brother began producing celluloid in 1871, marketing it as a substitute for natural materials like ivory and tortoiseshell and was used to create objects like jewelry, combs, mirrors, toys and even shirt collars. "It will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in search of substances which are constantly growing scarcer," boasted one promotional pamphlet.

"Celluloid was a new material," says the American History Museum's Ann Seeger who co-curated the display with Eric Jentsch. "It was the first semi-synthetic plastic, and despite some ambivalence on the part of producers and consumers, it was widely accepted and utilized in the production of fancy goods aimed at the growing middle class." However, a market for plastics that looked like plastic took a while to develop. "It was in the 1920s when DuPont launched a line of dresser sets made of celluloid that are clearly synthetic that the innovative aspects of celluloid were more widely recognized," Seeger says. "Perhaps the artificial aesthetic became accepted because celluloid (and the other plastics that followed) were seen as more modern than traditional materials."

And oh, what a glorious family of plastics succeeded celluloid! It includes the likes of polypropeline, polyetheline, polystyrene, polyester, nylon, bakelite, lucite and the plastic commonly known as vinyl. (You may not know it by the oddball names, but you're probably most familiar with polypropeline and polystyrene polyethylene by way of Tupperware products.)

Though innovative, celluloid had its problems—namely its highly flammable nature. "When in storage celluloid must have air circulation so we keep it on open shelving rather than enclosed cabinets," Seeger says. "The acids used in the production of celluloid can sometimes off-gas and if those substances are allowed to accumulate the results are disastrous, even to objects stored nearby." That said, finding celluloid objects in pristine condition can be a bit of a challenge, which is another reason why this display is most definitely worth a look.

Celluloid has since been replaced by more stable and substantial plastics, with one notable exception: the production of ping pong balls. For whatever reason, a suitable synthetic substitute has yet to be found. I love life's little ironies.

"Celluloid: The First Plastic"—which highlights a collection of over 1,700 celluloid objects donated to the museum by Dadie and Norman Perlov—is currently slated to be on view through the end of the year.

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