Perlovs donate hundreds of Celluloid items to Plastics Collection

(July 26, 2012) The Plastics Collection of the Syracuse University Library has received a major gift of celluloid objects from Dadie and Norman Perlov and family of New York City.  The Perlovs began collecting celluloid in the 1960's with their three young daughters. Collecting became a family activity and passion and over the decades the family amassed one of the largest celluloid collections in the world.   Dadie Perlov explains that “many people have collected celluloid because they like thimbles, toys, advertising, jewelry or some other area of collecting.  We’ve always been interested in celluloid as celluloid, in all its potentials.  This single material tells us about so many different aspects of life at the turn of the 20th century – a period when American society was going thought major social changes.”

A few years ago, the family donated close to two thousand items to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, where some are now on view.  Syracuse has chosen, in consultation with the Perlovs, about 275 representative and special items to help tell the story of this “pioneer plastic.”  The New York Historical Society also has a collection of Perlov celluloid.

The donation includes functional and decorative items: letter openers, napkin rings, razors, knives and cutlery, vanity items, clothespins, strainers, pencil and toothbrush holders, a celluloid-handled blood letter, a harmonica, photo albums and autograph books, a dance card, a clock, handbags, jewelry, candle holders, desk sets, electric lamps, and even two Fuller brushes, and much more.

Plastics Collection Curator Samuel D. Gruber says, “celluloid was used for thousands of different types of objects.  While initially it was seen as a replacement for precious natural material such as ivory and tortoise shell, it quickly developed an identity of its own.  People knew objects were celluloid and this was often celebrated – for practical and aesthetic reasons.  The Perlov Collection, while mostly of consumer items, gives a sense of the versatility of the material.  So many of the uses to which plastic is put today can first be seen in celluloid products.”

 Celluloid, which was originally a trademark product name for the cellulose nitrate plastics developed and manufactured by John Wesley Hyatt and the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, is now widely used as a generic term for all cellulose nitrate or pyroxylin plastics.  The Plastics Collection holds important original records of John Wesley Hyatt, previously donated by the former National Plastics Center and Museum.  In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were many companies manufacturing cellulose nitrate plastics, though eventually these merged, leaving only the Celluloid Company and DuPont-Viscoloid as the primary producers of the raw material, and also of many of the popular finished products.  

The Plastics Collection at the Syracuse University Library serves as a research and programming resource to advance the study and understanding of plastics in modern society, including its role in chemistry, technology, industry, marketing, health, art, design, politics, and other fields. The Plastics Collection includes books, periodicals, manuscripts, and over 5,000 plastic objects produced from the late -19th century to the present day.

In addition to celluloid, the collection holds a variety of early plastics such as Bakelite and Catalin, as well as plastics made popular after WWII, such as acrylics, polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, and nylon. Archival holdings document  important plastics companies, including sunglasses manufacturer Foster Grant, as well as papers of inventors and entrepreneurs, such as John DeBell, Edwin Bushman, and Armand Winfield who helped make the 20th century the "Age of Plastic."