09/19/07 - plastic

In today's excerpt - plastic, invented in 1907 and omnipresent today:

"Bakelite, invented in 1907 by Leo H. Baekeland, an industrial chemist who had emigrated from Belgium ... [was] the product of a condensation reaction between phenol and formaldehyde conducted under heat and pressure [and] was the first chemically synthetic plastic. ... It was used to mold electric insulation. ...

"As the word plastics [was adopted and] attained general recognition [in the 1920s], the new industry worried about its public image. Using new materials to imitate or substitute for traditional materials tended to imply inferiority. ... Addressing potential customers, the Du Pont company magazine in 1938 defined plastics as 'man-made combinations of basic chemicals and materials.' No longer 'substitute materials', they were designed 'by man to his own specifications.' ...

"The postwar generation grew up with plastic. ... Annual production in the United States nearly tripled between 1940 and 1945, a year in which 818 million pounds went for such military uses as aircraft cockpit covers, mortar fuses, bayonet scabbards, helmet liners, and even the atom bomb. Expanding explosively after the war ... annual production exceeded six billion pounds by 1960. Baby boomers played with Wham-O hula hoops and frisbees, Barbie dolls and Revell airplane models, Lego blocks and Mattel machine guns. They ate breakfast at formica dinettes, spilled milk from polyethylene tumblers onto vinyl floors, and left for school clutching disposable Bic pens. Their families experienced a flood of new plastic products—Tupperware, garbage pails and laundry baskets, Melamine dishes, appliance housings, Saran Wrap and dry cleaning bags, picnic coolers, scuff-proof luggage, Naugahyde furniture, Mylar recording tape, Corfam shoes, shrink-wrapped meats, Styrofoam egg cartons, artificial Christmas trees and endlessly on. ...

"In 1968 ... Dustin Hoffman, starring as The Graduate, received some advice from a family friend. 'I want to say just one word to you. Just one word ... Plastics ... There's a great future in plastics.' This odd pronouncement ... convulsed audiences and became a line 'repeated into classicdom by a whole generation of kids.'.... By then, plastic was undergoing its greatest shift in meaning since the appearance of the new materials. Expansion of plastic mirrored a civilization that seemed to be abandoning its ideals in pursuit of material goods. ... Plastic became an adjective meaning fake or insincere—referring especially to the older generation, its activities, its accomplishments. ... Given the word's evolution, it is not surprising that some manufacturers spurned plastic as a general name, choosing instead to promote materials with an array of generic and trade names [such as] Plexiglas, Teflon and Kevlar. ... When the University of Delaware established a research center for synthetic materials in the 1980s ... it became the Center for Composite Materials to avoid association with plastic."


Jeffrey L. Meikle


American Plastic: A Cultural History


Rutgers University Press


Copyright 1995 by Jeffrey L. Meikle


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