early plastics and the rich
September 17, 2005 5:35 AM   Subscribe

When plastic was first discovered/invented, was there a time when it had luxury cachet? More specifically, was there a time when the very rich (and hip) would have used plastic plates?

When CDs or cell-phones were first invented, the early adopters were techies and the very wealthy, who were happy to pay a premium to show how modern, with-it and rich they were. Was the same ever true of something like plastic plates (or pantyhose, say)? I imagine that they were always meant as mass items, cheapo peoples' stuff, but that's a rather arbitrary assessment, based on their current role in society. Anyone have any insights? My google-fu's not helping.
posted by Marquis to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
It's been a little while, but I read this book a few years ago... it's a pretty comprehensive and readable history of plastic.

I don't remember all the details exactly, but sure -- think about what you've seen in terms of 20's art deco kinda stuff. A lot of those old radios and other household accoutrements and whatnot were bakelite, the first bigtime plastic. You might wanna look more into its history of you want to see how plastic spread across the U.S.
posted by ph00dz at 5:47 AM on September 17, 2005

Best answer: Russel Wright's designer Melmac dinnerware was, and still is considered hip.
posted by brautigan at 6:05 AM on September 17, 2005

I've been told that sometime in the first half of the 20th century cellophane was relatively expensive and was used to wrap very nice gifts.
posted by Clay201 at 6:18 AM on September 17, 2005

See French Ivory.
posted by alms at 8:16 AM on September 17, 2005

Cellophane was especially used for wedding and shower gifts. Still is, far as I know.

In the very early 60's my grandfather retired from AC Sparkplug, where he'd been a designer of car interiors (59 Chevy with the panel of circles was his, and many of the Cadillacs of that time).

At his retirement party they had coasters for each place, made of plastic, stamped with the AC logo. Very unusual in those days, and I have one of the coasters. (placemats were printed from a blueprint for one of his Cadillac designs, and I have one of those, too).

So I'd say, 'Yes'. There was a time when plastic was something other than cheap crap.
posted by Goofyy at 8:22 AM on September 17, 2005

Yes. From Mental Floss:

In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt created collodion, a forerunner of celluloid. Up until that time, billiard balls were made of ivory, usually cut from the center of an elephant's tusk. A company named Phelan & Collender began manufacturing billiard balls using collodion as a covering for the ivory balls. This gave a smooth, round surface to the balls, making for a better game.

This new development wasn't without its drawbacks, of course, which quickly became evident. After these balls hit the market, reports of them "exploding" began to circulate around the country. In truth, the collodion wasn't really explosive. But because the outer casing was lighter than the inner ivory, a heavy impact caused the collodion to shatter.

Plastic plates weren't considered luxury items to the rich in those days, however. You might be thinking of Melmac Dinnerware, a middle-class commodity, which tends to shatter in microwave ovens (it's also a pre-diswasher safe plastic). Mass-produced desireables among the upper crust were non-acrylic porcelain, usually from Russell Wright, Frank Lloyd Wright, et al.
posted by Smart Dalek at 8:23 AM on September 17, 2005

In the 1920s, fountain pen makers began using cellulose- and casein-based plastics for their high-end ranges, instead of chased hard rubber. Plastic allowed for much greater variety in colour -- you could get marbling and striped effects -- and in many cases, those early plastic pens were (and are) more sought after than solid metal ones.
posted by holgate at 8:56 AM on September 17, 2005

As a somewhat related aside, in the 1800's aluminum (aluminium if a certain FPP is to be believed) used to be somewhat novel and rare, so much so that it was used in expensive jewelry.
posted by caddis at 8:56 AM on September 17, 2005

I was just thinking about that too Caddis, there's a famous anecdote about Napoleon using aluminum plates that were reserved for his most honored guests, for other guests less expensive (at the time) gold plates were used.
posted by bobo123 at 10:02 AM on September 17, 2005

I have an old wooden table lamp that was obviously manufactured to *look* like plastic with apparent plastic mouldmarks and really glossy plastic-y paint. I think that is suggestive of a time when plastic was the new hotness and a wooden lamp manufacturer tried to keep up.
posted by Rumple at 10:18 AM on September 17, 2005

I think so. My dad based a car purchase decision based on plastic v.s. wood when he was in his 20's, that'd be around 1950. One car had a real wood grain interior, the other was plastic. He chose the plastic one because wood was seen as chincy at the time.
posted by substrate at 10:49 AM on September 17, 2005

I read somewhere that Buckminster Fuller & his friends are the ones who invented the "Plastic flowers" on a bet, sometimes in the 40's
posted by growabrain at 11:07 AM on September 17, 2005

Best answer: cellophane is even lauded in the song "You're the Top"

"You're the top, you're Mahatma Gandi
You're the top - you're Napoleon brandy
You're the purple light of a summer night in Spain
You're the National Gallery, you're Garbo's salary, you're cellophane "

Not a joke!
posted by scarabic at 2:47 PM on September 17, 2005

One of the most recent issues of Harper's Magazine (published within last month or so) has a short finctional story told from the eyes of a middle-eastern boy whose village is exposed to plastic for the first time, and the effect it has. It's quite good.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 12:20 AM on September 18, 2005

Best answer: I imagine that they were always meant as mass items, cheapo peoples' stuff

Here's your problem. There was a time when mass produced items weren't considered cheapo people's stuff. Really. And it wasn't that long ago.

Plastic plates, for instance, didn't really become a major deal until the 1970s. I'm sure they existed, but even plasticware wasn't widely produced, except for specific applications like camping -- and even then, the paper plate was prominent, and camping aficionadoes surely had a set of tinware. Plastic became a big deal in the 1970s, with plastic furniture, plastic plates, plastic this and that. Think of the mock-70s stuff in the "We Will Become Silhouettes" video. The cachet wasn't so much the expense as the new -- you were with it, you were using something modern and space-age. Even then there was a period when plastic plates were assumptively so rare that the first microwave meals came with their own sturdy plates. (There was also a gap wherein a lot of plasticware just wasn't microwave-safe.) I'd say that plastic plates only became super-cheap and widespread around the mid-80s.

But yeah, if you for some reason are writing a novel or staging a play with rich people using plastic plates, the idea to go with is more Jetsons than anything else.
posted by dhartung at 12:25 AM on September 18, 2005

Ahh, plastic plates from microwave dinners. I think that was late 80's. We reused them for years to feed the cat.
posted by clh at 12:04 PM on September 19, 2005

A bit off-topic, but on a recent visit to the Smithsonian I recall reading about the small aluminum cap on DC's Washington Monument. I believe the placard said that aluminum at the time was comparable to gold in price (I think because it was so hard to either get from the earth or to refine). At the time I got the impression that it was used because it was so expensive—bragging rights for the donors or something—but upon further reading of the above link that seems not to be the case. Man, if you got the time machine fired up you'd have to cram the overhead compartment with all your empty soda cans.
posted by blueberry at 1:57 AM on September 21, 2005

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