Patented in 1869, Celluloid was not the first man-made plastic—that honor goes to Parkesine, which was formulated in 1865 by a Birmingham, England, inventor named Alexander Parkes, who combined collodion (used in tintypes and ambrotypes), camphor, and vegetable oil so it could be rolled into sheets and adhered to cloth, making the resulting material waterproof. Unfortunately, Parkesine proved brittle, its key ingredient, collodion, was highly flammable, and in his zeal to cut manufacturing costs, Parkes ended up producing a product of poor quality. The firm closed in 1868.
Meanwhile, in the United States, an inventor named John Wesley Hyatt was experimenting with nitrocellulose, whose main ingredient is a plant fiber called cellulose and whose soluble form is collodion. Like Parkes, Hyatt was trying to create a plastic, but his sights were set on billiard balls—a company called Phelan & Collander had promised $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a substitute for ivory, which even in the 19th century was a dwindling resource. Hyatt did not win the prize, but in the course of trying to produce the ball, he noticed that when camphor was added to nitrocellulose, the combination plasticized. In 1868 and 1870 respectively, Hyatt formed the Albany Billiard Ball Company and the Albany Dental Plate Company to put his invention to work, but his main claim to fame was the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, which was founded in 1872 when the Dental Plate Company’s name was changed.
For years, Celluloid could only be used in certain applications because of its flammability. For example, it never caught on in billiard parlors because the Celluloid-coated balls would sometimes produce small explosions when they collided with each other. Similarly, the coating’s use in movie film sparked countless fires in hot projection rooms—today, the instability of early silent films make their preservation for future generations a tricky business. The problem was the nitro part of nitrocellulose, which prompted inventors to find alternatives. In France, where filmmaking was born (sorry, Hollywood!), a scientist named Henry Dreyfuss created what he called a “safety film” in 1900 by mixing cellulose with acetic acid instead of the more volatile nitric variety. A few years later, in 1907, Leo Baekeland created the first fully synthetic plastic, which he called Bakelite.
The advent of hard, carvable Bakelite and this new, somewhat-less-flammable version of celluloid (lowercase now, since the word was often used imprecisely to describe plastics in general) spurred even more uses of the material, particularly in costume jewelry. Knowing that one’s brooch was less likely to spontaneously combust was an obvious selling point, as was the price, which was lower than the original, more flammable stuff.
Examples of celluloid costume jewelry include bangles studded with small rhinestones, pins and necklaces made out of molded leaves in a variety of colors, and earrings that resemble everything from carved ivory and coral to Christmas ornaments. Celluloid was also a popular material for dress and fur clips of the 1920s and ’30s, often used in combination with metal or casein, another type of early plastic. Shapes included flowers of all types and colors, birds, puppy dogs, and characters from Popeye to ice skaters.