American Plastic Plastic materials have become so numerous that you cannot go through a single day without touching something made of plastic. Toothbrushes, ballpoint pens, unbreakable dishes, cabinets and knobs for machines and appliances, light switches – all of these things and many more are made of plastic. It seems hard to believe that before 1869, there was no such thing as plastic. The first plastic, celluloid, was invented in 1869 by John Wesley Hyatt, (Meikle 5).
A $10, 000 prize had been offered to anyone who invented a material that could replace ivory for making billiard balls. In his experiments, Hyatt dissolved nitrocellulose and camphor in alcohol. This produced a solid, white material that could be pressed into blocks. The celluloid blocks could then be cut and ground into billiard balls.
Mr. Hyatt won the prize and patented his invention (10, 11).
For more that 40 years afterward, Hyatt’s celluloid was the only kind of plastic. Manufacturers began making it into combs and brushes, buttons, piano keys, handles, and stiff collards and cuffs for men’s shirts (24, 25).
Celluloid also became the main material for making plates for false teeth. The celluloid plastic was lighter and had less taste than the hard rubber that had previously been used to hold false teeth.
George Eastman, a manufacturer of photographic equipment, invented a way to make celluloid film. Photographers until then had been taking pictures on chemically treated glass plates. The main problem with celluloid was that it caught fire easily. In 1909, Leo Hendrik Baekeland, a Belgian chemist living in New Jersey, invented a new kind of plastic called Bakelite. Bakelite was hard to burn and impossible to melt. Telephone sets were among the first products made from Bakelite (34-50).
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Since the early 1900’s, many different plastics have been developed, each having a special characteristic or advantage that makes it good for various purposes. Some plastics stood heat better, while some withstood shock better. Some could be spun into thread from making fabrics such as nylon. In 1938, Du Pont publicly announced the new synthetic fiber, nylon.
The memo, that went out announcing nylon, defined “Nylon is the generic name for all materials defined scientifically as synthetic fiber-forming polymeric amides having a protein-like chemical structure; derivable from coal, air and water, or other substances and characterized by extreme toughness and strength and the peculiar ability to be formed into fibers and into various shapes such as bristles, sheets, etc” (138, 139).
The first glimpses of nylon stockings appeared at two world’s fairs in 1939. Nylon stockings did not go on sale until May 1940 (142).
Plastics proved to be flexible. They could be made hard or soft. Colors could be mixed right into the plastic material, so plastic objects do not have to be painted (74-78).
Plastics were easily shaped and molded, and they can be used together with other materials, such as metal, wood, and rubber. However, plastics could not and cannot, even today, withstand rubbing with steel wool, sandpaper, or gritty cleanser. Their surfaces would become dull, scratched, and rough. It was suggested during the damp-cloth utopianism that plastics should be cleaned with soap and damp cloths (167-176).
Reference: Meikle, Jeffrey I.
American Plastic: A Cultural History. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.