Dangerous Materials?

Trade card (advertising card) for celluloid shirt collars and cuffs, 1880s. Author’s collection.

Plastic may seem like a recent invention, but the first synthetic plastics actually appeared 150 years ago, in the 1860s and 1870s. Like other inventions of the 1800s—steam trains, telephones, photographs, and many more—these new materials were symbols of an age of technological progress, but they could also be dangerous.

Celluloid, the most successful early plastic, was cheap, light, strong, and easily colored and molded. In the late 1800s and early 1900s it was a popular substitute for more expensive natural materials, such as ivory and tortoiseshell. Many everyday items were made of celluloid: hairbrushes and combs, buttons and jewelry, frames for eyeglasses, detachable shirt collars and cuffs, dice and billiard balls, children’s toys, and even false teeth.

Beginning in the 1890s celluloid also helped to create a brand-new entertainment industry. Since it was the only material at the time that could be formed into super-thin, transparent strips, it became the “film” in movie cameras and projectors. This nitrocellulose or nitrate film was used to make movies for the next 50 years.

Though this pioneering plastic was very versatile, it had a major drawback. Celluloid’s main ingredient was cellulose nitrate or guncotton, which was essentially cotton treated with acids. Because cellulose nitrate caught on fire quickly and burned fiercely, celluloid items were also flammable.

Fake tombstones set up for Fire Prevention Week in Cincinnati, Ohio, 1938. Note the one on the left that says “I was playing with a celluloid doll.” Photograph by John Vachon. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1997003500/PP/

There were many stories of smokers setting fire to their shirt collars and cuffs, or of buttons on shirts and dresses suddenly exploding, or of toys going up in flames. In 1906 a Paris newspaper reported that Mademoiselle Zelle, a cabaret dancer, put a fashionable celluloid collar on her little dog. But since she was smoking at the time, “the cigarette touched the collar, and—pouf! it was all over.”

Some of these tales were made up or exaggerated, as celluloid was actually far more hazardous for factory workers than for consumers. In the 1870s and 1880s several celluloid factories in the United States and Europe suffered explosions and fires that killed and injured workers (including teenagers), destroyed machinery, gutted the buildings, and damaged buildings nearby.

Ruins of a celluloid factory after an explosion, Brooklyn, New York, 1909. Photograph by Lewis Hine. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004001946/PP/

Motion-picture film was also dangerous since it ran at high speeds through projectors with bright, hot electric bulbs. Projector fires were common until the 1950s, when “safety” film replaced nitrate film. Most movie theaters had metal projection booths lined with fireproof asbestos and equipped with shutters to keep any fires from spreading.

Most of the plastics we use now won’t catch on fire the way celluloid could. Instead, their potential hazards are less dramatic and more subtle. For example, many people worldwide are concerned about the long-term health effects of bisphenol A (BPA), an organic compound used in plastic bottles and containers, linings for metal food and drink cans, and even on cash-register receipts. In response to medical studies showing that BPA can be harmful to humans, bans of the compound are increasing (especially for children’s products) and manufacturers now offer BPA-free bottles and containers. Debates about the dangers of plastics and their ingredients will undoubtedly continue long into the future.

Jane E. Boyd, Ph.D., is a museum curator and freelance writer in Philadelphia, specializing in the history of science, technology, and medicine. For more about celluloid, see her article in the Fall 2011/Winter 2012 issue of Chemical Heritage, available online

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