A quick primer on vintage plastics
Oct 24, 2018 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Bright! Bouncy! Unbreakable! The world of vintage plastics is a colorful place and many a historical enthusiast loves to visit this magical land. Why? The advent of this “wonder material” in the late 1800s / early 1900s ushered in a new era in product design, forever altering the way the world consumed and enjoyed its possessions. Suddenly plastics could been seen in all manner of objects – finding its place in kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, garages – adorning the necks of glamorous women or carried by precocious kids on the way to school. Join us for a quick primer on vintage plastics and tell us what you think the next wonder material will be in the comments below…
First up on our list is celluloid, invented to be a substitute for ivory and used mostly in smaller objects like pens, buttons, combs, and toys. Celluloid also goes by the names of “french ivory” or “ivorine” (if you’re feeling fancy). This early plastic doesn’t age particularly well, prone to surface cracks and yellowing. If you find a celluloid item – handle with care. (And note that these items are flammable.) In addition to identifying celluloid by weight (lightweight) and smell (moth balls or even ping pong balls), you can also typically see through the plastic when it’s backlit.
For a deep-dive on bakelite, check out this feature from 2013.
Up next is another “c” plastic – casein. Casein is a powdered substance, which was then mixed into a paste and hardened with formaldehyde. You may also know this vintage plastic by another name – galalith. The benefit casein has over its alphabetical colleague is that it’s not flammable and sturdier. Easily polished and colored, casein became a fashion darling. You’ll see this plastic most commonly as jewelry, buttons, knitting needles or pens. Beyond its weight, casein can be identified by an aroma of burnt milk when put under hot water. Proof that sometimes smelly things can be beautiful (I feel like Oscar the Grouch would be pleased with this news!) Unlike celluloid and bakelite, casein is still in use today (although in more limited applications).
Rounding out our quick primer on vintage plastics is lucite. Like galalith, lucite is still used today. Unlike galalith, lucite’s popularity has enjoyed more staying power. This makes it trickier to tell if you have a vintage or new lucite item. When it comes to figuring out era, vintage lucite pieces can be best identified by their style. You’ll want to look for marble grain, clear lucite with objects embedded, confetti (my personal favorite because it’s like a glitter bomb frozen in time) or moonglow. Lucite was widely used so you can find it in an array of objects, much to the delight of collectors. Unlike its vintage counterparts, lucite is aroma-free. When you assess a possible lucite collectible, its best to judge by look and weight. Despite its formidable nature, it is pretty lightweight.
When we consider this catalog of vintage plastic darlings, it’s easy to see why folks were crazy about these materials and why collectors drool over pieces now. Good, bad, or indifferent, plastic objects became a key part of our consumer culture at a time when technology was taking off. Plastics helped the war effort and made fashion accessible to all. So – what do you think the next wonder material will be? What new breakthrough is going to be the next great collectible? Let us know!