The origins of celluloid, the first synthetic plastic, date to the 1850s. English chemist Alexander Parkes combined nitrocellulose (wood cellulose, aka guncotton) with the organic solvent camphor and named the results “Parkesine.” John Wesley Hyatt patented a similar substance in America in 1869, giving the useful stuff the name by which it is best known: celluloid. Hyatt viewed it as a substitute for ivory, using it to make piano keys, billiard balls and false teeth.
Celluloid soon became the generic term for all nitrocellulose-based plastics. In addition to faux-ivory, this seemingly magical material could simulate mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, amber or coral, depending on which chemicals were added to it. Moreover, celluloid could be painted, molded, carved, cast or processed into sheets, blocks and rods. Its low production cost suited it to mass-produced items such as cutlery handles, straight razors, slide rules, trade signs and table tennis balls.
Celluloid was also used to create a mind-boggling number of decorative items. Both opaque and transparent celluloid buttons brightened many a trendy outfit. So too did celluloid hatpins, belt buckles, fur clips and dress clips, embellishing opposite sides of women’s necklines.
But this early plastic had a startling drawback, which manifested most infamously with billiard balls. If something made from celluloid struck another piece of celluloid with enough force, it could explode. Hyatt himself noted this flash-bang effect could cause serious trouble in pool halls, writing in 1914, “We had a letter from a billiard saloon proprietor in Colorado, mentioning this fact and saying he did not care so much about it, but that instantly every man in the room pulled his gun.”
Because the recipe for celluloid relied on nitrocellulose, a combustible material, the factories that made celluloid products were prone to catching fire. After a series of such blazes, The New York Times set its focus on the potential threat to consumers, stating in an 1895 article: “No man can play billiards with any real satisfaction if he knows that the billiards-ball may at any moment explode … burying the players under table and cues. Still worse would be the fate of a possessor of celluloid teeth, who should, in a moment of forgetfulness, insert the lighted end of a cigar into his mouth. The scene that would follow would make men and angels weep…”
Sudden detonation was not a concern for those who bought jewelry and accessories made from celluloid, simply because those items weren’t intended to be slammed against each other, and no lady would treat her belongings so roughly. Antique pink, lime green, ivorine and mother of pearl celluloid vanity items were often displayed on Victorian ladies’ dressing tables. The plastic appeared in basics such as hand mirrors, scent bottles, balm jars, powder pots, combs, brushes and trinket boxes, as well as matching clocks, picture frames, shoe horns and clothing brushes. Women would also tuck their vanity items into satin-lined celluloid dresser top boxes decorated with ornate florals, cherubs or Victorian beauties.
Folding fans, some barely the size of a woman’s palm, incorporated overlapping, bladelike celluloid sticks painted with lush florals or pierced with lacy patterns. Larger, more opulent creations by Duvelleroy of Paris, the fan-maker to royalty, featured celluloid sticks crowned with masses of ostrich feathers or black organza. Still others featured dainty celluloid frames spanned by slim, gold-painted wooden ribs against fine, sequined mesh grounds.
Decorative celluloid hair combs were popular through the early 20th century. Many were graced with elaborate pierced designs, while others had rhinestone-edged florals, lotus flowers or butterflies. Chic celluloid-tipped hatpins and stickpins also gained favor.
Celluloid earrings ranged from demure clip-ons molded in the shapes of bows and flowers to dramatic multicolor danglers. Rings took the forms of classic, carved florals and geometric patterns as well as inmate-made prison rings. These humble pieces, which were created by carving or heat-bonding slivers scraped from celluloid pens, toothbrush handles or hand mirrors, often featured small photos mounted on their bezels.
Vintage necklaces typically bore delicate celluloid beads in muted amber, white or ivory shades, while chokers bore showy coral, green or blue blossoms. Inexpensive charm bracelets jingled with ivorine mini-menageries. Lightweight celluloid bangles were no less fashionable; women routinely wore armfuls of slim, simple multiples. Others chose molded florals, swirling patterns or sparklers featuring row upon row of rhinestones.
Brooches fashioned from celluloid were produced in huge quantities. They often featured molded, carved florals or bouquets, while others resembled fine, costly cameos or featured photographic portraits. Though jewelry designer Lea Stein released scores of brooches, only her earliest examples were made of true celluloid. (Her later ones, as with most pieces of jewelry, used cellulose acetate, an entirely different plastic.)
Celluloid production ceased in the West after the arrival of better and cheaper plastics, but Japan, which holds the world monopoly on camphor, continued to make celluloid brooches, bracelets, bangles and beads. Intricate, delicately tinted, hand-painted floral designs bearing the label “Occupied Japan,” which denotes the era of American occupation after World War II, delight art and history buffs alike.