Celluloid: The Eternal Substitute

Set of 19th-century Hyatt billiard balls. Hyatt was one of the first manufacturers to use celluloid as a substitute for ivory, gemstones, tortoiseshell, and other costly materials. CHF Collections. Photograph by Gregory Tobias.

After further processing, including curing to remove excess camphor, the final substance was light, strong, relatively stable, and versatile (although it unfortunately retained the flammability of its guncotton component). Celluloid, the first successful synthetic plastic, had arrived.

Hyatt, along with his brother Isaiah Smith Hyatt, immediately put his invention to use. First they set up a company to make celluloid dental plates for false teeth, as an alternative to rubber. Then they established the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, which moved from Albany to Newark, New Jersey, in 1872. Here the brothers devised machinery for mixing the ingredients and new ways of manipulating the material. Blow molding, a process for making hollow items from celluloid tubes, was an important Hyatt development, leading to the mass production of millions of inexpensive toys and ornaments. Since it was clear and colorless if left undyed, celluloid could take on any tone, even mixed or mottled shades. Clever artisans fashioned celluloid into artificial ivory or coral, semiprecious stones, and tortoiseshell, which was especially in demand for hair combs and eyeglass frames. Early advertisements often promoted the material’s versatility and shape-shifting qualities (see sidebar). Because many people equat­ed celluloid with guncotton, tragicomic urban legends about exploding combs and buttons abounded. Celluloid, though, was more dangerous to its makers than its consumers, with factory fires a common hazard.

But what of the billiard balls that led John Wesley Hyatt on his journey? They were probably never made wholly of celluloid. Instead, they were most likely composed of lighter, cheaper shellac and wood pulp, like his game pieces, with only a thin coating of collodion or celluloid to impart strength and color. Until the introduction of Bakelite in the early 20th century, there would be no wholly acceptable substitute for ivory in billiards. And though Hyatt made a passable imitation for many years, for some reason he never tried to claim the $10,000 prize.

“No More Washee Washee”

Celluloid’s key assets—it was naturally transparent, flexible, and waterproof—led to a particularly ingenious use. In the late 19th century, as industrialization accelerated and cities expanded, more Americans began working in offices and stores. This growing class of male and female workers—clerks, secretaries, typists, salespeople—was required to dress neatly and formally, often on modest salaries and while living in dirty, coal-fueled cities. Detachable collars and cuffs made of linen or cotton allowed shirts and blouses to be reworn while still looking fresh, but the detachable items needed to be washed, starched, and ironed regularly, just like the garments themselves. Paper collars and cuffs, though cheap, were not strong enough or dirt-resistant enough to be ideal substitutes, even when varnished.

Sheet celluloid, introduced in the mid-1870s, provided a solution, and again Hyatt led the way. He sandwiched linen or paper between thin sheets of transparent celluloid, then invented machines for cutting, heating, and bending this hybrid material into the form of collars, cuffs, and shirtfronts. The resulting long-lasting items never needed washing: they could just be rinsed clean. Hyatt himself applied for and received 11 patents for improvements to his invention, including methods of finishing the items for a more natural appearance.

Though celluloid linens never completely replaced true linens (particularly among the upper classes, who scorned such artificiality), they were moderately popular until shirt styles changed in the 1930s. Perfect, easy-wear shirts remained more of a hope than a reality: shirtfronts could pop or crack, stiff collar edges chafed cheeks and chins, and buttons rattled in the buttonholes of collars and cuffs. (Manufacturers advised wearers to wrap a small piece of chamois leather or an elastic band around the button’s shank to avoid this unwanted sound, and Hyatt soon patented a “Non-Rattling Celluloid Cuff.”) Some advertisers even managed to spin an unpleasant side effect into a virtue. On very scanty evidence the occasional camphor smell of the collars, released by body heat and perspiration, was hailed as a health benefit (see sidebar).

The greatest strength of celluloid collars, cuffs, and shirtfronts was their tough, waterproof, stain-resistant nature. Brightly colored trade cards, produced by manufacturers for distribution by retailers, emphasized this feature in a playful way, showing frogs and ducks wearing the items or children using them as boats and umbrellas. Other trade cards, however, expressed a darker side of American culture.

Starting with the California gold rush of 1848–55, significant numbers of Chinese immigrants, mostly men, came to the United States. Their numbers grew, with thousands working to construct the Central Pacific section of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. After the railroad boom they mostly moved to major cities, particularly San Francisco.