National Museum of American History Showcases “Celluloid: The First Plastic”

June 10, 2010
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s newest historical highlight case features “Celluloid: The First Plastic.” The case explores the many uses of celluloid and its contribution to the plastics industry in America and features a variety of objects, ranging from picture frames and postcards made in the 1890s to advertising calendars and toy animals from the 1940s. The objects came from Norman and Dadie Perlov, who donated 2,000 celluloid objects from their private collection to the museum in 2006.

Celluloid, the world’s first commercially successful plastic, was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. Hyatt originally invented celluloid to be used as a substitute for ivory in the manufacturing of billiard balls. Celluloid soon became common in the manufacturing of other items, such as cutlery sets, baby rattles, jewelry and table-tennis balls because of its inexpensive but highly durable qualities. Celluloid was the foundation that led to the development of the plastics manufacturing industry in America; however, its highly inflammable qualities made it hazardous to produce and the manufacture of most celluloid products ceased by the 1940s. Today celluloid is only used in the production of table-tennis balls, for which a successful substitute material has not been discovered.

The National Museum of American History collects, preserves and displays American heritage in the areas of social, political, cultural, scientific and military history. To mark the 50th anniversary of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, the museum explores stories of freedom and justice, both in Washington and online. To learn more about the museum, check http://americanhistory.si.edu. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000, (202) 633-5285 (TTY).