Celluloid Pen, Image by Helian

As with many other inventions, it was borne out of necessity. By the mid 1800s big game hunters found themselves running low on ivory. This decrease in supply had unfortunate timing as the indoor sport of billiards had become very popular. Billiard balls were traditionally made of ivory you see, so firms were hard-pressed to discover new solutions. The billiards firm Phelan and Collender went so far as advertising a $10,000 reward to an inventor who found a feasible, non-ivory solution.

Celluloid | History and Applications

John Wesley Hyatt took up the task and although he fell shy of his goal, he stumbled upon creating celluloid. Created around 1870, it is widely considered the original thermoplastic (it was a moldable mass that could be formed with heat and pressure, to a level of fine detail). These qualities made it perfect for the budding industrial age.

In 1872 the Celluloid Manufacturing Company was founded and soon other applications were being explored. Oddly enough, early success came in the realm of men’s fashion. During this era, male workers were expected to arrive at work with starched collars and cuffs. By pushing hot cellulioid against linens, these starched elements would last and suddenly shirts became wash and wear. As one can imagine, this invention became very popular for middle-class men (and their wives!).

Image by vassil

Celluloid baby

Soon celluloid was being used for household items like combs, pens, toys, and in cameras as plastic film. Any item that was formerly composed of animal horn or tusk would now be made with celluloid. However, advancement was soon stunted as its highly fragile and flammable state made long-term use in household items challenging. The plastics industry was exploding with innovation and with the rivals of the British product Xylonite and Bakelite, celluloid fell out of favor.

How to identify celluloid

Much like our tests for bakelite, a keen sense of smell is useful. Vigorously rub the piece so that it heats up so an odor will be emitted. Celluloid will smell like mothballs or even pine sap. Another way to differentiate celluloid is that it is a thinner plastic. With this in mind, you’ll want to take extra caution with your vintage celluloid as it’s very fragile and flammable.

Cause A Frockus would like to thank our tremendous resources: Wikipedia, “Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century” by Stephen Fenichell, Antiques Roadshow, Cool Old Games, and the wonderful people who post their images without restriction.

For our readers: Do you enjoy collecting celluloid? What’s your favorite piece?

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