The Plastics Age is here and wonderful things will happen, or so we are told. For nearly a century, the plastics industry has been proclaiming the imminent arrival of the Plastics Age,
It is possible that Yarsley and Couzens, who were familiar with the Bakelite Company’s products, were thinking of this experimental Bakelite coffin, made in 1938, when they wrote about the final end of ‘Plastics man’. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
a conscious imitation of the archaeological expression the 'Iron Age' (itself dating from 1879). Since it first appeared in print in 1927, the Plastics Age has been coming or has arrived; it is never past.
But the Plastics Age was not just any old period: it was to be a new paradise, in which all things were made possible by these new materials. Significantly, the term first appeared in an editorial in Plastics magazine entitled ‘Editorial Impressions:
As an adult, he would live in a house that is a ‘universal plastic environment’
We Believe in Dreams!’. As early as 1926, Harrison E Howe (1881-1942), who wrote Chemistry and the Home with Francis Turner, declaimed: ‘With the growth of our knowledge of the constitution of the molecule and of the atom of which it is composed, there may come an age of synthesis which will rival in richness and splendor all those which have preceded it.’ At the 1933 ‘Century of Progress’ exhibition in Chicago, Union Carbide exhibited its rather clinical ‘Vinylite House’ filled with Vinylite objects and fittings, ranging from green living-room walls to orange doors. Seven years later, Fortune magazine in a feature on plastics created the ‘American Venus’, an armless plastic torso, out of which flowed all the blessings of plastics including telephones, juke boxes, movie film, dentures and even ‘tough cellulose plastic doorknobs’.
This is a typical beautifying object that could have graced the home of the ‘Plastics man’. Made by Eduard Fornells for René Lalique around 1930, this red cellulose acetate box with an intricate design of cherries mimics delicately carved wood. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
The peak of this plastics futurism was surely reached in a Pelican book called Plastics, which was published in 1941. Written by two chemists, this short book is mostly devoted to prosaic explanations of plastics manufacture and the various uses of plastics. In the conclusion, however, the prose suddenly changes gear. Victor Yarsley and Edward Couzens wax lyrically about a future in which ‘Plastics Man’ would be born into ‘a world of colour and shining surfaces’. As an adult, he would live in a house that is a ‘universal plastic environment’ with an all-plastic bathroom, moulded plastic furniture and beautified with plastic lampshades and vases. After enjoying a retirement fitted with plastic dentures and playing with plastic chessmen, he ‘sinks into his grave hygienically enclosed in a plastic coffin’. Ironically, in his cover biography, it is said of Couzens that, ‘Though a firm believer in the future of plastics, he prefers glass and metals himself’.
Plastics manufacturers are usually quick to take up new designs, partly because they lend modernity to the material and because plastics are easy to shape into a wide variety of designs. This is an amber-coloured cast phenolic stamp wetter designed by John Boyton in 1948 for the stationery firm John Dickinson & Co. in an Art Deco style, which imitates amber. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Needless to say, the plastic industry never shared the general disillusionment with plastics which occurred in the post-war period. In 1957, the American chemical firm Monsanto collaborated with the Disney Corporation and architects from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to erect the ‘House of the Future’ at Disneyland in California. The fibreglass house was raised above the ground and contained a wealth of plastics including vinyl flooring, storage units and foam slab beds. Ironically, the ‘House of the Future’ dated very quickly and it was demolished (with difficulty) in 1968.
Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the American Society of Polymer Engineers ran an essay competition on the theme ‘Wonder of Plastics’ and the chairman of the German ‘K2001’ plastics exhibition declared that ‘the twentieth century marked the dawn of the Plastics Age. Plastics…are the building blocks of civilization.’ A panel of futurologists assembled by the European Space Agency predicted that the home of the future could be like an astronaut’s suit: ‘A plastics-based multi-layered construction which affords heat retention, cooling, moisture management and protection'.
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