Home Gallery Restoration Plastics Contact

A Brief and Incomplete History of Early Plastics

Cellulose Nitrate

Parkesine, invented in 1862 by Alexander Parkes
The company went under in 1868 after only two years of business, but Parkes paved the way for others. Xylonite was the trade name for Daniel Spill’s effort at an improved cellulose nitrate compound.

Celluloid, invented in 1863 by John Wesley Hyatt
Hyatt was aware of the previous work of Parkes and Spill. Hyatt’s contribution was the addition of heat and pressure to the process, eliminating some of the technical difficulties with large-scale manufacturing. His company was quite successful, making dental plates, shirt collars, utensil handles, toiletry items, and game pieces, of course. The $10,000 prize offered by a billiard ball company for an ivory substitute may have inspired Hyatt’s work. It is not believed that Hyatt ever collected the prize money. Cellulose nitrate is quite flammable, and apparently celluloid billiard balls would occasionally explode. Perhaps that dampened the enthusiasm of the prize committee.

Cellulose Acetate

Invented by Camile and Henri Dreyfus,  1904
Sold under multiple tradenames including Celanese, Estron, Zylonite, Plastacele, Bexoid, Trenite, and Clarifoil. It solved the problem of cellulose nitrate’s flammability. Primarily used to stiifen and waterproof fabric, as a fiber, and as a laminate. Sometimes used in jewelry in layers of brightly-colored laminate.

Casein formaldehyde

Invented in 1897 by Spitteler and Krische
Created in an attempt to made a white chalkboard. Casein was made by mixing milk protein and formaldehyde. It was marketed under the names Galalith, Lactoid and Erinoid. Also quite successful, it was used for buttons, pen barrels, knitting needles. It is still used today in button manufacturing.

Phenol formaldehyde

Bakelite, invented in 1907 by Leo Hendrik Baekeland
Bakelite, a phenol formaldehyde resin, was the first completely synthetic plastic. It is a thermosetting plastic, meaning that once hardened, it cannot be melted. Very strong, with good insulating properties, it was very useful for automobile and electrical parts, as well as jewelry and other decorative objects. Bakelite is made using powdered phenol formaldehyde resin, mixed with filler powder, and then cooked in a pressurized mold. It is still used today in the manufacturing of electrical parts.

When phenol formaldehyde is cast instead of formed in compression molds, it is sometimes referred to as catalin. The Catalin corporation made cast phenolics, however so did Bakelite, Marblette, and other companies. The phenol formaldehyde is kept liquid and poured into casting molds. Hanlding the resin differently kept the color lighter, and it could be dyed in vibrant colors. The lack of fillers allowed it to be translucent.


Melamine formaldehyde, isolated in 1834 by Liebig
Though isolated in 1834, it wasn't developed until 1933. Great heat reistance, could be produced in light colors, and had exccellent moisture resistance. In widespread use for dinnerware.

Urea formaldehyde, 1920’s to 30’s
Known by the trade names Beetle, Plakson, and Scarab. Unlike the phenolics, could be produced in white. Found widespread use in household items

Polymethyl methacrylate, 1931

Commonly referred to as “acrylic”, Lucite and Plexiglass were produced by Dupont and Rohm and Haas Chemical Company, respectively. Used everywhere from airplane canopies to jewelry. Still manufactured on a widespread basis.

Copyright (c) 2007 CoolOldGames. All rights reserved.