I knew a man once who collected plastic shopping bags. He had examples from some of the most famous department stores and high-class shops from all around the world. He was a security guard and got himself sacked for petty pilfering … presumably the bags came in handy for carrying home his booty!
He came to mind to the other day as I walked around an Art Deco collectors’ fair. One stall was doing a healthy trade and wrapping customers’ purchases in the most stylish carrier bags I’ve seen in a while. The bags aren’t collectors’ items yet (they surely will be one day), but the 1930s plastic knickknacks being sold on the stall have certainly become so.
There was everything you could think of from eggcups and salt and pepper sets to the most amazing handbags, cigarette cases, powder compacts and ornaments, all bearing that unmistakable angular design so definitive of the Deco era.
Among the customers were a man and woman who clearly had taken collecting to the extreme: each was dressed as if they had just set stepped out of a Cecil B. Demille movie set. It came as no surprise when they walked away from the stall clutching one of those amazing carrier bags.
Antiques get younger every day, so it is wrong to be surprised that plastic objects could feature in such a prestigious fair. After all, they are no less stylish than the bronze and ivory figures by Ferdinand Preiss or the engraved glass of Keith Murray, just a whole lot cheaper, although you might be surprised at the prices being asked by some of the stuff I saw the Deco fair!
When it was invented, plastic revolutionised our lives. It happened almost by chance. Birmingham inventor Alexander Parkes is generally credited as the person responsible when in 1862, he went to his medicine cabinet to find some collodion to staunch the bleeding of a cut finger. He discovered that the liquid had turned into a gummy, rubber-like substance which he realised had potential if it could be moulded into shape.
After much trial and error, the first synthetic plastic, called Parkesine, was unveiled at the Universal Exhibition of 1862. It was launched to the buying public in 1865 in the form of decorative wall plaques, hair slides, combs and knife handles. However, they were not a success. They either warped with wear, or became brittle and prone to cracking and Parkes’ company was forced into liquidation.
Such early products as these, which retailed between 1862 and 1868, are incredibly rare. Meanwhile, Parkes’ associate, Daniel Spill, began to make similar plastics, intended to look like wood and ivory. They were marketed under the trade names Xylonite and Ivoride, but were not successful either.
In the U.S. at around the same time, brothers Isaiah and John Wesley Hyatt invented a similar material which they called celluloid. In 1877, the Hyatt Company and Xylonite merged to become the British Xylonite Company, which still exists today as BXL Plastics Ltd.
Celluloid was far less brittle and soon it was being used to make knife handles, napkin rings, bowls, dressing table sets and countless other decorative knickknacks which became hugely popular at the turn of the century. The objects could be bought in “ivory”, “tortoiseshell” or “pearl” finishes, some of which were so lifelike that they looked like the real thing. It’s even possible to be fooled today.
Interestingly, celluloid proved to be less than successful. “Moving picture houses” became popular in the early 1900s, but when people saw how quickly the celluloid film burst into flames when something went wrong with the cinema’s projection equipment, they stopped buying objects made from it for their homes!
Another early plastic, called Casein, was developed by the Bavarian chemist Adolf Spitteler, apparently after his cat knocked over a bottle of formaldehyde solution into its saucer of milk. The result, after much research, was a lustrous milky white plastic which was used to simulate amber, ivory, agate and malachite.
It was marketed from 1914 under the trade name of Erinoid, but this was not much good either. It was used for tableware and kitchen items such as cutlery handles and napkin rings, but it retained moisture and proved impractical.
The big breakthrough in usable moulded plastic came with the invention of Bakelite, or phenol formaldehyde resin, patented by Leo Baekeland in 1909, just one day ahead of his London rival, Sir James Swinburne.
The distinctive dark mottled brown, red or green Bakelite was about as good as it got at the time for a totally man-made synthetic plastic. It was heat resistant and therefore ideal for electrical products such as hair dryers, television sets and radios, smoking accessories, and most kitchen equipment, although was not good for serving hot liquids, because the plastic gave off an unpleasant smell and flavoured the drinks.
Another major drawback of Bakelite was that it could only be made in darker colours, but in the Twenties ureathiourea formaldehyde made its appearance, under such trade names as “Bandalasta” and “Linga-Longa”, which were both lighter in colour and more aesthetically pleasing.
In 1938, under the name of “Exton”, nylon, the first totally man-made fibre appeared, while wartime research led to many acrylic products such as Perspex being developed, followed by PVC, laminated boards like Formica and Melamine, versatile polythene and, eventually, expanded polyurethane, which could be both flexible and rigid.
Each exerted an influence on our sense of colour and design, particularly in the form of streamlining, since the moulding process favoured curves. The products were soon found in every room in the modern home.
With such a varied history and so many different types of plastics to choose from, it was inevitable that collectors would turn their attention to this area of collectables. From the early Seventies onwards, enthusiasts began to build up interesting collections and for several years a Bakelite Museum in Wilton, Somerset, provided a focus and issued a newsletter.
Classic Plastics, by Sylvia Katz, (Thames & Hudson, 1984) gave fresh impetus to collecting, and specialist dealers began to comb the country for rare and unusual items for sale at home and overseas.
As you might imagine, there’s no shortage of collectible plastics, so it’s worth insisting on mint condition with no chips or cracks and, unless it is an aesthetically pleasing or particularly rare object, no fading.
Take particular note of hinges, often a stress-point. Named items, with trademarks in some cases, make dating easier, giving clues to the composition of the material used. If possible, where made for a purpose, pieces should be in working order, or restorable.
A gentle wipe over with a damp cloth and a light polish is usual enough to restore plastic to its original condition, but use nothing abrasive and avoid soaking, especially in very hot water.
Flea markets, boot fairs, church bazaars and family attics all yield treasures, once you are alive to them. Prices vary widely. Specialist dealers such as those at the Deco fair are bound to charge more than a car-booter clearing out his attic, and London dealers with West End overheads obviously charge most of all.
Some items like radios, dolls, handbags and fans, are collected not only because of the material from which they are made but because of their purpose as well, so as well against other Bakelite buffs, you are competing against wireless enthusiasts, doll devotees, costume collectors and fan fanatics.
Generally speaking, classic radios cost between £80 and £150; handbags from £5 to £65; clocks, pairs of candlesticks, photo frames, cigarette boxes and fans from £15 to £30, although there’s plenty at under £10.
But prices are rising, so invest primarily in items which embody the style of an era, whether it is the elegance of true Art Deco or the fun of Fifties kitsch.
There can be few collecting fields which offer such scope for individual enterprise for such a reasonable outlay. So don’t dismiss plastics as second-rate substitutes. They deserve recognition as a serious field for the collector.
Picture shows: Fantastic plastic: some of the most amazing and colourful uses of plastic were in the Wurlitzer jukeboxes of the 1930s and 40s. This Model 750 has cream, scarlet and green Perspex panels which glow from the internal illumination. It plays 78 rpm records only and is worth £15,000-20,000