One Word… Plastics
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In this interview, University of Texas historian Jeffrey Meikle discusses the evolution of plastic and the history of plastic manufacturing in America. Professor Meikle has written histories including American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers University Press, 1995) and Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925-1939 (Temple University Press, 2001).
What were some of the earliest products made from plastic?
The materials that we refer to as “plastic” came into use around 1870. The first real plastic was called celluloid and it was developed by an American, John Wesley Hyatt. He was looking for a new material to make billiard balls out of, because he thought ivory was going to become scarce. Celluloid could be used to imitate ivory, tortoise shell, all kinds of materials. It was a cheap, versatile substitute.
The first plastic that we really recognize as plastic, as we think of it today, is Bakelite, invented in 1907. Leo Baekeland was looking for an inexpensive form of shellac, which was getting increasingly expensive. It was used in the electrical industry, for insulation. Baekeland wanted something harder, that wouldn’t melt at a low temperature. What he came up with seemed almost indestructible. It appeared quickly in automobile parts, radio tubes — and eventually made its way out into consumer goods. It was used for pipe stems in the beginning, then, as it became less expensive, for things like costume jewelry. By the late 1920s, plastic dishes were made of Bakelite. And of course there were still lots of industrial uses for it.
What did American consumers think about pre-war plastics, including bakelite and nylon?
The nylon story is fascinating. At the time, there was a lot of talk about the miracles of chemistry, the wonders of modern science. When nylon fiber came in, DuPont immediately realized they could produce nylon stockings, substitutes for silk, that would be less likely to run. They began to talk about spinning fiber as fragile as silk, but as strong as steel.
The newspapers picked this up and started to talk about stockings as strong as steel. Then nylon stockings were slowly introduced, in 1938 and 1939. At the New York World’s Fair in 1939, consumer interest was so high that the public essentially directed the presentation of nylon. DuPont had female guides in their pavilion wearing nylon stockings, and women would come up and ooh and ahh, and by the end of the year, the visitors’ demands to see nylon caused DuPont to move it to the main stage. By the 1940 World’s Fair DuPont had an elaborate presentation, with Miss Chemistry coming out of a test tube. DuPont gradually changed the exhibit because of the popular demands for nylon.
In World War II, nylon was used for parachutes, tow ropes, mosquito netting, and other military uses, and its consumer availability was severely limited. When nylon stockings were reintroduced after the war, there were riots around the nation — women mobbed stores trying to get them. Consumer interest was extremely high.
What impact did the war have on plastics manufacturing?
During the war, manufacturers produced two categories of plastics. First, they made things that could be used by the military. Perhaps the most dramatic military use of a plastic was acrylic — clear acrylic plastic was used for cockpits and gunner noses in bombers and fighter planes. The material captured the popular imagination — people thought they would have plastic-domed cars after the war.
Second, manufacturers used cheap plastics as substitutes for materials that weren’t available due to wartime restrictions. There weren’t many consumer goods available, and the ones that could be found were made out of cheap materials. People would sell kitchen bowls made out of sheets of cardboard impregnated with plastic resin and molded into shape under high heat and pressure, for example. These things split and cracked easily. Inexpensive plastic buttons were manufactured that melted when a garment was dry cleaned. People had to accept these poor, substitute materials because the really good plastics were being used for the war effort. So there’s a real dichotomy with wartime plastics: you’ve got the high-tech stuff being used in the war effort, and the less impressive stuff available to consumers.
What happened to plastics after the war?
Consumer plastics took off after the war. Part of the success was orchestrated by the plastics industry, and part of it was true popularity. The industry’s reputation had suffered during the war, because of the cheap substitutes it had produced. So the industry had a serious image problem. It addressed the problem vigorously, running special advertising sections in women’s magazines, for example. Articles promoted plastics as easy to clean. If youplasticated your house, the industry promised you could practically clean it with a garden hose.
Polyethylene was among the new plastics that had been developed or commercialized during the war. It had been used for wire coating, and in radar housings. After the war, DuPont had tremendous polyethylene production capacity, but didn’t really know what to do with the material. Polyethylene is soft, waxy, and flexible — totally unlike the heavy, solid Bakelite of the 1930s. It has a completely different material presence. DuPont gave Earl Tupper samples of it, and he attempted to come up with consumer products to make from it. He was one of many people doing research and development work for DuPont. Tupper’s “wonder bowl” — with a sealing lid inspired by the air-tight seal on a paint can — launched an enormous, hugely successful business, of course.
After the war, plastic filled an aesthetic need. Both women and men were looking for a sense of lightness, whimsicality, color. Many products like Tupperware had real novelty. They were unlike anything that had been seen before. It’s also possible that the cheapness of plastics like polyethylene actually contributed to the proliferation of inexpensive products after the war. It became possible, at the same cost, to produce more stuff. I’m not saying there wouldn’t have been a consumer boom if new types of plastics with new properties hadn’t been developed. But the availability of affordable, appealing plastic products — after the long, tough years of Depression and wartime rationing — encouraged Americans to open their wallets.
Why did Tupperware become so popular in the 1950s?
Before the war, even as far back as the 1920s, you have this “better things for better living through chemistry” sloganeering. The corporate and promotional people at companies producing plastics are creating and marketing an image for plastic. After the war there is still that propaganda, but I think it escapes their control to a degree. Tupperware appeals to the American housewife because it is novel, it is different, it has a pleasing texture, a funny appearance. It’s fun. It may have been a part of an emerging consumer lifestyle that we are still experiencing today. The product is not going to change our lives extraordinarily, but it’s a light-hearted, inexpensive item, and it’s easy to indulge yourself with it.
The 1968 hit movie, The Graduate, famously used the word “plastics” to represent all that was artificial and superficial about American culture. Any comment from a plastics historian?
Buck Henry, who wrote the script for the film, had an art history professor who used to attack America for being a plastic society. Henry said in an interview that that was the origin of the scene. I think it spoke to a generation of young Americans who thought that to talk about plastics as anything utopian was an absolute joke, because they were surrounded by shoddy plastics, like the toys that broke on Christmas morning. Plastic struck some young people in the 1960s as a representation of everything they felt like rebelling against.
I’ve seen the The Graduate several times. I’ve looked carefully, and there is nothing in the set representing Benjamin’s house that is definitely made of plastic. No Formica with amoeboid patterns, no molded wall clocks, nothing that is definitely plastic. It’s just another layer of irony in that film.
What’s the prognosis for plastics in the 21st century?
Most plastics today are extraordinarily well designed for their designated uses. There is no longer the sense that plastics might fail, as people felt in the Fifties and Sixties. People of my generation often use the word to mean fake or phony, but probably no one under the age of 40 would think of plastics that way. People use high-tech plastics in lots of places: in computers, sports equipment. We now think that we have systems in place for recycling all the ephemeral plastics. So “plastics” isn’t the bad word it once was.