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The Age of Plastic

Since the mid-19th century social scientists have followed the lead of Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen, dividing prehistory into three periods based upon the predominant material utilized in tools. Most people have heard of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, but a symposium I attended in Washington, D.C. in June attempted to extend Thomsen’s framework to the present. Convened by the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), “The Age of Plastic” attracted historians, conservators, artists, and industrial scientists eager to discuss the implications of humanity’s growing reliance on synthetic materials.

G. Wayne Clough, secretary of the Smithsonian, opened the workshop by observing that plastic is “the material we love to hate.” No other substance offers a similar combination of design flexibility and physical durability at such a low financial cost. Yet these same properties have encouraged the proliferation of disposable plastic products that will linger in our landfills and oceans for decades.

Over the course of two days, speakers from a variety of disciplines discussed our contradictory relationship with plastics. As science writer Susan Freinkel pointed out, the earliest plastics were initially hailed as saviors of the natural world due to their ability to replace substances like ivory or tortoiseshell.

Celluloid Hyatt billiard balls. Hyatt was one of the first manufacturers to use the plastic as a substitute for ivory, gemstones, tortoiseshell, and other costly materials. (CHF Collections/Gregory Tobias)

Over time, plastics transcended their role as substitutes to become something novel and exciting, before an oversaturated marketplace began to view them as cheap. This change in attitude did not prevent museums or private collectors from accumulating sizable numbers of plastic artifacts, and several speakers referred directly to the Smithsonian’s holdings in their talks. Historian Robert Friedel examined celluloid novelties to argue that this pioneering plastic was valued as more than an ivory substitute during the late 19th and early 20th century. Hugh Shockey, a conservator from the American Art Museum, highlighted techniques to restore plastic sculptures, while MCI research fellow Molly McGath explored the breakdown of polymers in aircraft models used to identify enemy fighters during World War II.

Where historians and museum personnel were interested in preserving plastic objects for future study, other speakers expressed concern over plastic’s long-term environmental effects. Cinematographer Jan Vozenilek presented devastating footage from a nature preserve on Midway Island, where albatrosses are dying due to the consumption of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean.

While many speakers echoed Vozenilek’s call to cut back on single-use plastic packages, polymer scientist Mike Biddle went even further, demonstrating the possibility of recovering waste plastic found in consumer electronics and automobiles.

Almost inevitably, several participants alluded to the famous scene in The Graduate, where a young Dustin Hoffman is informed that there’s a great future in plastics. Though the scholars at this conference approached the subject from different disciplinary backgrounds and presented divergent visions of the future, it is clear that synthetic materials are here to stay. Further interdisciplinary conversations will be required to understand what it means to live in the Plastic Age.

Benjamin Gross is a research fellow at CHF’s Center for Contemporary History and Policy.

Related:
Celluloid: The Eternal Substitute [Chemical Heritage]
Plastic World [Distillations]
Plastics [CHF Online Resources]

Posted In: Education | History | Technology

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