Press-Republican

May 13, 2013

Celluloid had wide variety of uses

By JULIE ROBINSON ROBARDS, Collection Reflections
Press-Republican

---- — 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.

EARLY USES

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.

When celluloid waterproof cuffs and collars were introduced in 1875, they took the men’s fashion world by storm. Celluloid never lost its crisp, white appearance, and grimy sweat could be easily wiped away with soap and water. It wasn’t as comfortable as linen, but it always looked fresh and clean. It was a favorite of clergymen, traveling salesmen, bachelors and the wives of married men. And — at 25 cents — a celluloid collar could last for years, making it much more affordable than natural linen.

One of celluloid’s most celebrated virtues was that it could be made in convincing imitation of expensive luxury materials. For jewelry and fashion accessories, it was produced in jet black, jade, golden amber, coral, imitation marble, mottled tortoiseshell and faux ivory, complete with authentic-looking graining. For the first time in history, middle-class women could wear beautiful jewelry that appeared to be genuine and expensive.

By the late 1890s, sheet celluloid opened a whole new world of possibilities for decorative storage boxes that were made to hold cuffs and collars, manicure sets, dresser sets, jewelry, hand fans, keepsakes and more. The boxes were functional and beautiful, and decorated with scenery, pictures of animals or beautiful women. Some boxes were covered with embossed sheet celluloid that spelled out their intended purpose, such as “Hankies” or “Neckties,” while others simply showed an image describing its purpose, like a hand fan or a woman wearing a lovely ornamental hair comb. Decorated sheet celluloid also covered prayer books, photograph and autograph albums, and it was used to make political pinback buttons, advertising pocket mirrors, business cards, postcards, ink blotters and more.

HIGHLY FLAMMABLE

By the turn of the 20th century, celluloid-type plastics were being made by four different companies in America; the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, the DuPont Arlington Company, the Fiberloid Company and the Viscoloid Company. 

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.

GROWING POPULARITY

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.