Plastics of the Victorian Era
Most people think that plastics started with Bakelite. This is far from the truth. Although Bakelite was probably the first fully synthetic plastic, the Victorians had access to many plastics derived from natural materials. The following list shows the major Victorian Plastics.
- Bois Durci - derived from wood and blood.
- Shellac - derived from beetle secretions.
- Parkesine - the precursor of celluloid.
- Celluloid - derived from cotton and nitric acid.
- Xylonite - the first British version of celluloid.
- Vulcanite - derived from rubber and sulphur.
- Gutta Percha - derived from a Malayan tree.
- Casein - derived from skimmed milk.
- Union Case - shellac combined with a filler.
Bois Durci is a plastic moulding material based on cellulose. It was patented, in Paris in 1855, by Lepage. It is made from finely ground wood 'flour' mixed with a binder, either egg or blood albumen or gelatine. The wood is probably either ebony or rose wood, giving a black or brown result. The mixture is dried and ground to a fine powder. The powder is placed in a steel mould and compressed in a powerful hydraulic press whilst being heated by steam. The final product has a highly polished finish imparted by the surface of the steel mould.
Some authorities state that Bois Durci went out of use by the late 1880s, but recent research show that it was still being produced under the 'Bois Durci' name even after the First World War. The natural materials were gradually replaced by synthetic resins over a long period. There are many different products made with this material. Some are listed below.
- Portrait plaques.
- Plaques for attaching to furniture and pianos.
- Picture and Mirror frames.
- Inkstands (Encrier), Pen Trays , Blotters and letter racks.
- Belt buckles and Brooches.
- Album and book covers.
- Dishes and Tazzas.
- Paper Weights.
- Extensive selection of Bois Durci articles.
Shellac is produced from the excretions, Lac, of a beetle found in India and Malaysia. the collected lac is gathered, cleaned and melted to form a brown resin. When mixed with a filler, sawdust or powdered minerals, the shellac can be moulded into many useful objects. The most famous of the shellac products were the old style gramophone records. In the 1860s and 1870s many mirrors and brushes were made of shellac.
Parkesine was the first form of the material now commonly known as Celluloid. It was developed by an Englishman, Alexander Parkes. It was first shown at the Universal Exhibition of 1862. There were problems with the formulation and the company failed after a few years due to cracking and warping of the products. It was thought that this failure was due to Parkes being unaware of the importance of using camphor to stabilise the finished product. It now seems more likely that Parkes was well aware of this, but had to use poor quality ingredients due to a chronic lack of finances.
Parkes produced a number of decorative items in Parkesine, but very few survive. Large numbers of knife handles were made, but these are difficult to identify. A few commemorative medallions were also made. These are the only items a collector is now likely to find, although these are also quite rare.
Celluloid was developed in parallel with Parkesine, by Hyatt in the United States. It is impossible to prove who was the 'real' inventor, but a patent battle of the period seems to indicate that Hyatt followed the lead of Parkes, rather than the other way around. Hyatt patented Celluloid in 1869. The original form of celluloid was produced from Cellulose Nitrate; however this was highly inflammable and was replaced by Cellulose Acetate from the 1920s.
Xylonite was the trade name invented by Daniel Spill who took over from Parkes. This material, identical to Celluloid, can frequently found by collectors in England. The company became the British Xylonite Company Limited, and still trades as B.X.L. The imitation ivory form of this plastic is often identified as Ivoride. The Xylonite artefacts are found in a myriad of colours and patterns; the most attractive being those imitating coloured mother of pearl.
Vulcanite is the common name for Vulcanised Rubber or Hardened Rubber. This process, that of heating rubber with sulphur to harden the rubber, was first used by the American Charles Goodyear in 1839. The required amount of hardening can be produced by varying the proportion of sulphur added. Between 25 and 50 percent sulphur gives a hard product with the familiar feel of 'plastic'. Many Victorian Vulcanite objects can easily be found. The commonest form is an imitation of jet used widely in the production of Brooches, Bracelets and Necklaces. It could be produced in almost any colour, although black (Ebonite) and brown predominate. A pink variety was extensively used in the production of false teeth. I believe that it is still used for this purpose.
Gutta Percha is a rubber like substance made from the sap of the Palaquium tree, a native of Malaya and Borneo. First brought to Britain in 1843 it's use was quickly appreciated and the Gutta Percha Company was founded ,in London, in 1845. A tremendous variety of objects were made in Gutta Percha, although few survive. The material becomes brittle when exposed to air. When well preserved it is said to resemble polythene in colour and texture. The most significant use was in the covering of submarine telegraph cables. Other products included, acid resistant bottles, buckets and tubing. Another use, one of the few current uses, was in the making of copies of coins and medals. These are the objects most commonly encountered nowadays.
Casein is a plastic made from skimmed milk. When lactic acid is added to skimmed milk it separates into curds and whey. The curds, after being dried and powdered, can be formed into a dough and extruded into rods. When treated with formaldehyde the rods harden into a thermoset plastic. This is a lengthy process, sometimes taking months. The material is easy to colour. It can be made to imitate natural materials such as; pearl, tortoiseshell and ivory. the easiest casein objects to find are buttons and knitting needles.
Union cases were made in the USA in hundreds, or even thousands, of beautiful varieties. Made from a 'union' of shellac and various fillers, they survive in large numbers. Reaching a peak at the time of the American Civil War, they are much collected today.