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White Collar Plastic


From the start, plastic has played an important role in fashion – first as an imitative replacement material, and then in its own right, recognized for its special qualities.  Celluloid, patented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1870 was most often employed as a replacement material for precious ivory and tortoiseshell, but also for cheaper materials such a wood, cardboard and paper.  In the 1880's celluloid became an increasingly common and often preferred material for men’s detachable shirt cuffs and collars when the waterproof collar replaced traditional linen.   In addition to full collars and cuffs, celluloid collar supports were sold, such as the Tolman's Pearlbone Celluloid lace collar supports in the Plastics Collection. 

Detachable collars had been made since the 1820's, but the industry began in the 1850's when Rev. Ebenezer Brown manufactured collars behind his general store in Troy, New York, leading directly to the creation of Arrow collars in 1885.  The first documented sale of celluloid collars was by the Celluloid Novelty Company on December 22, 1875, but it was not until the regular production of celluloid in sheets that reliable and durable production could begin, following an 1878 lamination process patented by Rufus H. and Albert A. Sanborn and Charles O. Kanouse (U.S. patent 200939).   There were many variants of collar production, but most detachable collars were made by heat-laminating a linen collar between two sheets of thin, transparent celluloid, which could be easily cleaned.  

In time, collar production became more sophisticated, including the addition of textured patterns that gave the illusion of individual strands of linen and stitching.  The process was described in detail by Edward Worden in 1911 in the authoritative study Nitrocellulose Industry: A Compendium of the History, Chemistry, Manufacture, Commercial Application and Analysis of Nitrates, Acetates and Xanthates of Cellulose as Applied to the Peaceful Arts.  A linen collar with conspicuous fibers that had never been ironed was spread on a zinc plate, from which a plaster cast or electrotype was made. The same procedure was done for the underside of the collar, and from these cases metal molds were made.  Sheet celluloid cut to the proper size and shape was laid on the molds, and heat and pressure was applied to force the softened plastic into the minute configurations of the plate.  When the mold cooled, the flat collar was removed and shaped and then passed through heated rollers, similar to laundry ironing machines, to impart a high gloss.  According to Worden, celluloid collars were made especially white by adding zinc or magnesium salt during production. 

Upper-class gentlemen continued to prefer traditional linen, but in 19th-century cities, when coal heating  created dirty gritty smog of a type we have now largely forgotten, any improvement in the ease of cleaning collars was welcomed, especially by the armies of white collar office workers who needed to look clean and neat on often modest salaries.   According to historian Jeffrey Meikle, in 1918 DuPont marketed its Challenge Cleanable Collar brand to commuters, traveling salesmen, and railroad workers.

Celluloid collars and cuffs were long-lasting, while linen required laundering, starching and pressing.  As a result, even though celluloid collars tended to cost about the same as traditional linen collars, because they lasted so much longer purchasers realized considerable savings.  In addition to appealing to customers' sense of economy and fashion, some 19th-century advertising played on then-current anti-Chinese sentiment (which culminated in the Chinese Immigration Exclusion Act of 1882) by showing wearers of celluloid collars as confounding Chinese laundrymen.  An example found in a scrapbook in the Central New York Trade Catalogs and Business Ephemera Collection of the Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library shows a triumphant and star spangled female figure representing America declaring "No more Chinese cheap labor." At the bottom of the card is written: "Othello's occupation gone," "The Handwriting on the Wall."

According to Keith Lauer and Julie Robinson:

Records show that an incredible 20,000 tons of pyroxylin plastics were manufactured annually for the production of waterproof cuffs and collars.  Remarkably, this figure represents nearly half of all the plastic manufactured annually by the turn of the [20th] century.  In addition, by the year 1900, the U.S. Patent office had issued over 50 different patents relating to invention or improvement of waterproof cuffs and collars.

Celluloid inventor John Wesley Hyatt held eleven collar-related patents (these and dozens of other Hyatt patents are preserved in the Plastics Collection).  The market for the manufacture of various types of celluloid cuffs and collars was very competitive, with many companies flouting patent regulations.  Some, like the Chrolithion Waterproof Collar & Cuff Company, were successfully taken to court by Hyatt, but new companies continued to spring up.  Hyatt’s own Celluloid Company was a leader in the field, but other companies, such as the Arlington Collar and Cuff Co. (founded in 1886) were also productive.

During the same period celluloid also came to replace whalebone in women’s corsets, and was used for handbag and umbrella handles, decorative back combs, and many other fashion accessories.

The Plastics Collection contains three laminated collars of cellulose nitrate and linen, manufactured by the Troy, New York collar and shirtmaker Cluett, Peabody & Co., Inc., and donated by Glenn and Patsy Beall.   Cluett, Peabody & Co. was the longtime manufacturer of Arrow brand collars and shirts, whose celluloid collars were produced in the company’s factory in Leominster, Massachusetts.  Arrow collars were  advertised by the popular Arrow Collar Man (later Arrow Shirt Man) created in 1905 for Cluett, Peabody & Co. by commercial artist  J.C. Leyendecker, whose art set the style for a generation of Saturday Evening Post readers.  The Arrow Collar Man was one of America’s most recognized promotional figures; he received fan mail and inspired the 1923 Broadway musical Helen of Troy (New York)  by George S. Kaufman with music by Kalmar & Ruby.  

In the 1930's shirt styles and art styles changed and the market for celluloid collars and cuffs declined rapidly and then disappeared. (SDG)

 

See:

Cluett, Peabody & Co.” at Wikipedia (accessed 6/21/12)

Friedel, Robert. Pioneer Plastic: The Making and Selling of Celluloid (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983),

Lauer, Keith & Robinson, Julie.  Celluloid: Collector’s Reference and Value Guide (Paducah, KY: Collector’s Books, 1999).

Meikle, Jeffrey L. American Plastic: A Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995), 24-25.

Turbin, Carole.  “Fashioning the American Man: The Arrow Collar Man, 1907-1931,” Gender & History, Vol. 14:3 (Nov 2002), 470-491.

Worden, Edward Chauncey. Nitrocellulose Industry: A Compendium of the History, Chemistry, Manufacture, Commercial Application and Analysis of Nitrates, Acetates and Xanthates of Cellulose as Applied to the Peaceful Arts, 2 vols. (New York: D. Van Nostrand Company, 1911), Vol. II, 699-711.

Celluloid Arrow Collar

Celluloid Arrow Collar

Celluloid Arrow Collar

Three examples of Arrow collars manufactured by Cluett, Peabody & Co. Gift of Glenn and Patsy Beall.

elluloid collar ad

Celluloid collar advertising card, ca. 1890.  Scrapbook, Central New York Trade Catalogs and Business Ephemera Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Library