The History of Plastics

Plastics: An Introduction

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman's character, Benjamin Braddock, is given the unsolicited career advice of "Just one word: plastics." The phrase quickly became a derisive and dismissive summation of the ubiquity of plastics in our world-and a symbol of the (perceived) overwhelming falseness of all things for the 1960s generation. The truth, of course, is that while plastic by definition is always moldable and malleable, it is neither imitative nor false. Plastics are materials in their own right and engineered with their own special qualities.

Rather than stifling originality, for more than a century plastics have been a springboard for almost unlimited invention and innovation by chemists, engineers, designers, artists, and entrepreneurs. And as this exhibit shows, there are many words for plastics: the names of the products we can hold in our hands but also of the materials, processes, chemical compounds, and applications that give them birth.

Plastics are synthetic or semisynthetic polymers-materials where the selection of molecules and the chemical bonding process is man-made. Thermosets, which include most plastics made before the 1940s, can melt and take shape only once; thermoplasts undergo no chemical change when heated and can be molded again and again. Because plastics can be shaped into any form for any purpose, generations have imposed upon plastics-or the idea of plastics-their aspirations and insecurities.

Since the New York World's Fair of 1939, any image of a "World of Tomorrow" has featured plastic, but while plastics may evoke the future, they are very much of the present. No material has adapted so easily to the changing needs of an era, and no era has been so quickly defined by a material. The American flag planted on the moon is made of plastic (nylon). The same plastics used for prosthetic limbs and replacement joints are used in lifelike dolls. High-impact plastics are used in industry and on the sports field. The film and recording industries have relied on plastics, and so have hundreds of millions of children who play with plastic toys.

Despite its persistent modernity, plastic is one of our older technological innovations, a product of the 19th century. Experimentation with semisynthetic plastics in 1870 led to the creation by John Wesley Hyatt of a relatively stable and durable cellulose nitrate plastic, commonly known as Celluloid after its most famous trade name.

For more than a century, since the invention of the phenol formaldehyde resin Bakelite by Leo Baekeland in 1907, synthetic plastics have taken pride of place in a growing array of products. Plastics predate the electric and automobile age, whose developments would not have been possible without them. The rise of plastic was contemporary with and essential to photography, while today's movies on DVDs and music on CDs are descendants of the plastic films, recording cylinders, discs, and tapes of an earlier era. We are living in the Plastic Age.

Samuel D. Gruber
Curator, Plastics Collection