When most people think of “plastic,” they don’t necessarily think of “antiques.”
Present-day recyclable plastics are all around us, used in everything from computers and car parts to water bottles and medicine packaging. Some of us hate the stuff and others love it, but it is here to stay. So let’s take a look at the development of this amazing and controversial man-made material.
Before vinyl records and Barbie dolls, polyethylene Tupperware, Melmac dishes, Formica countertops, nylon stockings and Bakelite, celluloid was the first successful man-made plastic.
Celluloid was developed in the latter part of the 1860s by a man named John Wesley Hyatt, who was a printer living in Albany. In 1863, Hyatt saw a reward of $10,000 for the development of an ivory substitute that could be used in the production of billiard balls. By 1868, Hyatt had successfully invented a material for the purpose, but instead of turning his invention over for the prize money, he founded the Hyatt Albany Billiard Ball Company.
By 1870, Hyatt discovered another useful application for celluloid: It became an alternative for rubber in molding dentures, as rubber had become expensive due to a demand for bicycle tires. He formed the Albany Dental Plate Company and supplied dentists across America with the material to make false teeth.
In 1872, John Hyatt moved to Newark, N.J., and founded the Celluloid Manufacturing Company for the production of raw plastic for use in billiard balls, dentures and a host of other applications. One of the most significant inventions was celluloid waterproof linen.
This was the time before laundry detergent was invented, and the chore of laundering detachable linen cuffs and collars with soap, hot water and a washboard was a dreaded but necessary task. Since detachable cuffs and collars prolonged the life of a shirt, they were worn by nearly every man, but they required scrubbing and heavy starching in order to look crisp and clean.