Celluloid: The Eternal Substitute

Celluloid trade card, c. 1880s. Some advertisements for celluloid collars and cuffs reflected the widespread anti-Chinese prejudice of the late 19th century by suggesting that celluloid linens, which required no laundering, could drive immigrants out of business.

Unofficially barred from most occupations because of prejudice and language barriers, many became restaurant workers or laundrymen. (Before electric washers, laundry work, traditionally done by working-class women, was dirty, difficult, and low status.) In the years after the Civil War nativist agitators unfairly blamed “coolies” for the lack of jobs and depressed wages. Anti-Chinese prejudice increased, culminating in the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which essentially halted immigration from China. Some advertisements for celluloid collars and cuffs used such widespread racism as an advertising gimmick. On these trade cards wearers of celluloid linens celebrate the supposed American genius for technological innovation. They triumph over the stereotyped Chinese laundrymen, who speak pidgin English, have exaggerated “Oriental” features, and are shown as greedy and grasping.

One trade card features a laundryman attempting to collect from his customer, only to be dismissed because the man, newly arrayed in celluloid linens, has no more need of his services. Another, set in the “Gon Up Chinese Laundry” with Uncle Sam smiling in at the window, shows America as a proud young woman bearing a shield emblazoned with the word “Invention.” She points to the writing on the wall: “No More Chinese Cheap Labor—Celluloid Cuffs, Collars & Bosoms,” while the disconsolate laundryman, seated on his upturned washtub, wipes tears from his eyes. Yet another features two gentlemen rising from the ocean, wearing swimming trunks below and formal attire above. Facing a tiny, pigtailed laundryman weeping on the shore, they gesture boastfully to their cuffs and shirtfronts, showing how the items have resisted the briny waves. More laundrymen take to sea in their wooden washtubs, one with a sail marked “Off for China.” The caption states, “No More Washee Washee—Melican Man Wear Celluloid Collars and Cuffs.” Though anti-Chinese prejudice did not diminish, such mean-spirited advertisements were apparently short-lived, and celluloid manufacturers returned to touting the positive features of their products.

From Material to Medium

By the late 19th century, celluloid seemed destined to remain a second-class material—the stuff of inexpensive collars, hair combs, billiard balls, and baby rattles for the masses. Another development, however, was in store for this versatile substance. Previously, people had appreciated celluloid as a substitute, a plausible counterfeit of natural materials. But in its next chapter the pioneering synthetic plastic would no longer be an imitation. Instead, celluloid’s principal qualities—cheapness, flexibility, and transparency—would transform it from a material into a medium. Soon, the word celluloid would come to define not just the film stock spooling through thousands of cameras and projectors but the entire phenomenon of cinema itself.

Celluloid and photography had long been close cousins, for guncotton, the nitrated cellulose that formed the basis of the plastic, played an important role in early photography. In 1848 En­glish photographer Frederick Scott Archer added potassium iod­ide to liquid collodion to make it sensitive to light. When poured carefully, the syrupy mixture would form a thin, adhesive layer on a glass plate. If the photographer exposed the plate in a camera, then quickly developed, washed, and fixed it while still wet, a negative image would form. After drying and varnishing, the collodion coating would be tough and waterproof, conserving the negative image. The photographer could then use the negative to make any number of positive prints on light-sensitive paper. Because both the glass and the collodion were transparent, the negatives and the resulting prints were sharp and highly detailed, exactly suiting 19th-century tastes for realistic pictures. Archer’s wet-collodion process quickly superseded daguerreotypes on copper plates and paper-negative calotypes, the two earliest photographic processes.

Even after later photographers devised dry-collodion and dry-gelatin methods, thus eliminating the need to prepare plates on the spot and develop them swiftly, the glass plates remained heavy, awkward, and breakable. Some photographers wondered whether there was a way to use collodion alone, without a glass support. In the early 1880s George Eastman, who manufactured photographic supplies in Rochester, New York, succeeded in devising the first practical and successful roll-film system. As a first step Eastman and his collaborator built on earlier experiments with gelatin-coated paper on a roll. After processing, the gelatin negative layer was stripped from the paper and used for printing, but at first this “stripping film” produced fuzzy images and was difficult to handle. After some improvements, however, Eastman was confident enough to use the film as the basis for his first great invention: the Kodak camera, introduced in 1888. With its simple, foolproof design, along with its unique, made-up name and memorable slogan of “You push the button and we do the rest,” the Kodak was a runaway best seller.