Despite the fact that celluloid was extremely flammable, there were more than 125,000 known applications for the material. Products ranged from the mundane (buttons and shoelace tips) to the bizarre (artificial noses and limbs). Several stories surfaced about tragic fires in movie theaters when celluloid film burst into flames because of the hot projector bulb. In Canada, a hotel burned down when a patron rested a lit cigarette on a celluloid toilet seat. In London, a woman wearing celluloid buttons on her dress got too close to a fireplace and the buttons burst into flame. Another strange story was told of a man with an artificial leg that caught on fire from the sun reflecting off a shiny shovel.
During 1914, with the onset of World War I, American celluloid doll and toy production took center stage as trade ceased with foreign toy importers. After World War I, imitation ivory, tortoiseshell and amber were considered old-fashioned and outdated. Color became all the rage, and as the Roaring ‘20s dawned, celluloid jewelry studded with glitzy rhinestones came into favor. By 1924, colorful pearlescent celluloid laminates of pink, peach, yellow and green found a place on dresserware. Throughout the 1930s, celluloid plastics — in one form or another — were found in nearly every home in America.
Beginning on June 1, an important exhibit of historical plastics will be on display at the SFO Museum in San Francisco, Calif. Display cases will be filled with the most significant plastic artifacts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Two of the 20 cases will be dedicated to celluloid objects that are on loan from my own study collection.
To learn more about celluloid and other plastic materials, visit www.celluloidforever.com.
Julie Robinson Robards is an antiques journalist and dealer living in Upper Jay. She is the author of two published books on celluloid, an advisor to several antique price guides and a writer for AntiqueWeek Newspaper since 1995. She may be reached through her website www.celluloidforever.com.