We tend to think of modern plastics as artificial and unnatural – so much so that the term has even taken on metaphorical meaning, to describe someone whose personality or appearance is perceived as fake or inauthentic.
For most of history, however, humans have been interreacting with natural plastics. Encyclopedia Britannica defines plastic as a “polymeric material that has the capability of being molded or shaped, usually by the application of heat and pressure.” These polymers have existed in nature since the beginning of life on Earth. They include organic materials that have been used by humans for millennia, such as amber, bitumen, horn, rubber and shellac.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that man-made plastics (from organic polymers) emerged. And it was many decades later, in the 20th century, when plastic began to be produced with synthetic polymers.
Thermosets and Thermoplastics
Modern plastics are classified into two categories: Thermosets and thermoplastics. Thermosets are cured by heat, and cannot be remelted and reformed. Once they are molded, they are set in their ways. Thermoplastics, however, can be remelted and remolded continually. They retain their potential for future plasticity, even after they are molded. Generally, vintage plastic toys are made from thermoplastics such as celluloid, polystyrene, and polyethylene, but some can also be made from thermosets like Bakelite.
The first man-made plastic was developed by British inventor Alexander Parkes, and patented in 1855. He called it Parkesine. It was made from a combination of cellulose nitrate (discovered earlier that century and initially used as an explosive) and camphor. Although it was man-made, it was based in organic materials: cellulose is a naturally occurring polymer found in plants. Unfortunately, Parkes went bankrupt soon after he started producing his plastic. In 1870, American businessmen John and Isaiah Hyatt acquired Parkes’ formula and patented it in the US. They trademarked it under the name many collectors are familiar with today: Celluloid.
Celluloid (now the generic term for all cellulose nitrate + camphor plastics) became the first commercially successful plastic. The initial purpose for Hyatt’s Celluloid was actually to replace ivory as the main material for billiard balls. The versatile material could imitate the look of ivory, amber, and tortoiseshell, and soon came to be used for combs and other toiletries, jewelry, pens, cutlery and much more. It was also used for photographic film but was banned in 1951 due to its high inflammability. Despite its volatile nature, the material was also used to make toys and dolls for children.
Cellulose acetate was developed in the early 20th century to address the need for a safer plastic. Over the following decades, it gradually came to replace celluloid for a number of applications, particularly for photographic film, but also for toys.
Man-made plastics began to be used in the production of toys quite soon after they emerged in the nineteenth century. The first celluloid dolls were made in Germany around 1878, and continued to be commonly produced in the US, Germany, France and Japan for many decades. Celluloid rattles and bath toys soon followed, first appearing around 1890. As plastic chemistry and molding technology developed throughout the early to mid 20th century, plastic toys grew in popularity.
There were many advantages to plastic as a material for toys. Plastic toys were cheap to produce in large quantities, lightweight and inexpensive to ship, which resulted in lower retail prices. Their bright colors do not peel or chip, as paint does on wood or metal. They could be molded in precise and intricate detail at a low cost, and could incorporate transparent elements into their deign without the use of glass.
These early plastic toys did have some drawbacks though. There was, of course, the small issue of celluloid’s inflammability when exposed to heat. While the development of cellulose acetate solved this problem, it came with its own set of issues, such as high water absorption and poor dimensional stability when exposed to heat or sunlight. So, some manufacturers started using cellulose acetate butyrate, which is more resistance to moisture and heat, but expensive and emits a strong odor. Many of these problems were solved with the development of Polystyrene and Polyethylene, which will be discussed in our next showcase!
During WWII, the Irwin toy company bought old X-ray negatives from hospitals, and recycled the celluloid film sheets to make pinwheel toys! Many toy manufacturers were unable to continue making toys during the war, due to scarcity of materials. But Irwin got innovative, and found ways to produce their toys out of scraps and materials that were not necessary to the war effort. By the end of the war, however, they began phasing out the use of celluloid due its high inflammability, and ceased all celluloid production by 1947 – which is why we see “non-inflam plastic” and “flame resistant” advertised on some of their toy boxes from this period.
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Written and photographed by Shauna Taylor.