Sunday, October 26, 2008

Some more plastics...

Celluloid was created as a substitute for ivory in the 1800s.

Because billiard balls were made of ivory, one of the major manufacturers offered $10,000 for a viable replacement. (that is about $250,000 in today). According to a history of plastics, “An Englishman named Alexander Parkes developed a "synthetic ivory" named "pyroxlin," which he marketed under the trade name "Parkesine," and which won a bronze medal at the 1862 World's Fair in London. Parkesine was made from cellulose treated with nitric acid and a solvent which hardened into a hard, ivory-like material that could be molded when heated.

His products warped and cracked so they were not good for manufacturing. An American John Hyatt experimented with solvents, and by 1863 he discovered camphor would create a shapeable plastic that could be manufactured. Since cellulose was the main chemical, Hyatt named his plastic “celluloid.”

In 1871 the Celluloid Manufacturing Company was established in Albany, transferring to Newark, New Jersey in 1872. (For all those who “pooh-pooh” NJ, you would be surprised by how much this state impacted the US!) The first items off the line were dental pieces. Celluloid dentures were cheaper than rubber, but they softened when hot, and the camphor taste permeated the mouth.

Celluloid made its impact with waterproof shirt collars, cuffs, and the false shirt fronts. Corsets made with celluloid stays also proved popular, since perspiration didn't rust the stays, as it would if they had been made of metal.

This brings us to what most of us know in the celluloid world…its replacement for ivory, tortoise-shell, and bone. The dresser sets and hair combs were no longer for the rich.

Celluloid could also be used in entirely new applications. Hyatt figured out how to fabricate the material in a strip format for movie film. By the year 1900, movie film was a major market for celluloid.

However, celluloid still tended to yellow and crack over time, and it had another, more dangerous defect: it burned easily and spectacularly, unsurprising given that mixtures of nitric acid and cellulose are also used to synthesize smokeless powder.

Ping-pong balls, one of the few products still made with celluloid, sizzle and burn if set on fire. (There's a science fair project sure to entertain the judges!)

Cellulose was also used to produce cloth. While the men who developed celluloid were interested in replacing ivory, those who developed the new fibers were interested in replacing another expensive material, silk.

In 1884, a French chemist, the Comte de Chardonnay, introduced a cellulose-based fabric that became known as "Chardonnay silk." It was an attractive cloth, but like celluloid it was very flammable, a property completely unacceptable in clothing. After some ghastly accidents, Chardonnay silk was taken off the market.

In 1894, three British inventors, Charles Cross, Edward Bevan, and Clayton Beadle, patented a new "artificial silk" or "art silk" that was much safer. The three men sold the rights for the new fabric to the French Courtald company, a major manufacturer of silk, which put it into production in 1905, using cellulose from wood pulp as the "feedstock" material.
Art silk became well known under the trade name "rayon," and was produced in great quantities through the 1930s. Today it is blended with other natural and artificial fibers. It is cheap and feels smooth on the skin although though it is weak when wet and creases easily (notice rayon is dry clean only).

So, the next time you pick up that "mirror, mirror" keep in mind it was created in the 19th century...and, amazingly, it still works in the 21st century...just don't light a match around it!!!


gail said...

Hi Susan,,, I love the celluloid dresser sets. Boy I remember them from the 60's. I have always liked them. What a fun post.
Say "hey" to the squirrels...LOL
Have a great week..gail

Silena said...

Hi Susan,
Indeed, the history of plastics is very, very interesting. You tell its story in such a delightful and lighthearted manner.........very enjoyable!! Thank you!! And have a great week!!

Eileen & Karen said...

You are always a wealth of information! That was really interesting!
Forget Me Not Dreams

Deb said...

Susan....What an interesting post! I sure didn't realize rayon was a biproduct of the search for something to replace ivory. :)


Patricia said...

Those dresser sets are so pretty. Love the green. That was another great history lesson. I so look forward to your post every week.


Miniature Patisserie Chef said...

Hi Susan,

Wow, how do you come up with so much information and knowledge each must have did a lot of research :) Thanks for the great post on plastics! Have a good week!

Pei Li

Anonymous said...


Loved the post and must say the moment I read about the ping pong balls I wanted to try it.


Cottage Flair said...

This was truly a lesson today. I had no idea about all of that. Great pics as well.

Carolee Crafts said...

Your blog is always so informative and a pleasure to read, thank you for sharing.

Michelle May-The Raspberry Rabbits said...

Hey Susan,
Interesting as always. Didn't know that about Rayon. Love those dresser sets. They are so pretty. Thanks for the lesson.

Inka Smith said...

As usual you are amazing with your lessons. The Dresser sets are beautiful. Thanks for sharing.
I learned something again... I thought Celluloid was the dimples in my butt...oh yea...that is cellulite!!!

Unknown said...

Hi Susan!

You are such a wonderful teacher. Every time I visit you I learn so much. I love so many things you posted from the past. So many beautiful things. Thank you for all the valuable information. I really enjoyed it.
How is your friend Peggy? I was thinking of her this morning. Have a happy week. By the way I love the picture of you and your sweet mom on your blog. She looks precious.
Janet's Creative Pillows

Francie...The Scented Cottage Studio said...

well some of that I knew but a lot of it I didn't! thanks again for the enlightenment. You always make it so interesting.

Maison de Petite - dollhouse miniatures with a French twist said...

Thank you, Susan, for once again enriching our lives. I truly enjoy the informatin you share with us!

Janet L Christian said...

I'm so glad you posted this information. I didn't know the name of the material Celluloid. I have a manicure kit that has several pieces made with this material. You gave us a very informative post.

kath@retromantic antiques said...

love your weekly "classes".They are always so interesting. k

Carolyn Kocman said...

i LOVE that celluloid bureau it mine??? can i have it???? are you selling that???? sooooo pretty!!!! and you just cannot stop yourself from giving us a lesson in the process, can you, teach?

Susie said...

Hi Susan! I am always in awe of your Show and Tell. Thank you so very much!!!
Susie of The Polka Dot Rose

Lilli Blue said...

Wow Susan this was a really fun one for me. I love have a bunch of hard braclets made from the "fake ivory" Ilove it. I bought a rose neclace. I'll have to take a picture and send it to you. it is a big cabbage rose about 3 inches and I was bumbed when I found out it was "real" ivory. i paid $3 for it. I was so sure it was a fake. Well Happy Monday teach. Another fun post. Lilli

cathy said...

wow, I never knew that's where rayon came from. The things I learn from you! Love those dresser sets with the flowers on it. So dainty.
Thanks for the lesson!

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