The American Zylonite Company

This 'History' is intended to illustrate how the American Zylonite Company was related to many of the companies and personalities involved in the early development of the plastics industry.

What's in a name?

For the purposes of this history all the above items are considered to be the same substance. For convenience, and to avoid seeming bias towards any of those involved, the term 'cellulose nitrate' will be used. The dictionary definition, of Zylonite/Xylonite/Celluloid, is shown below.

Xylonite \Xy"lon*ite\, n.

See Zylonite
[1913 Webster]

Celluloid\Cel"lu*loid`\ (s[e^]l"[-u]*loid), n. [Cellulose + oid.]

A substance composed essentially of gun cotton and camphor,
and when pure resembling ivory in texture and color, but
variously colored to imitate coral, tortoise shell, amber,
malachite, etc. It is used in the manufacture of jewelry and
many small articles, as combs, brushes, collars, and cuffs;
-- originally called xylonite.
[1913 Webster]

On January 1st 1891, one of the worlds largest manufactories of cellulose nitrate products closed its doors. It had been brought to disaster by ill fortune and the Celluloid Company. The name of this unfortunate concern was 'The American Zylonite Company'. Only a few years earlier it had employed over 500 people and was considered one of the largest producers of cellulose nitrate in the world.

Although little known to students of plastics history, the American Zylonite Company forms part of the web connecting both British and American cellulose nitrate producers, and four of the main characters involved in the development of the industry in the nineteenth century.

Although the precursor of cellulose nitrate was first produced, on a laboratory scale, in the 1830s and 1840s, our story starts with the 'Father of Plastics' Alexander Parkes (born 1813).  The first useful cellulose nitrate based material was invented by Alexander Parkes in the late 1850s, probably as a result of experiments in waterproofing cloth. The public were first shown the new material, named Parkesine - after the inventor, at the 1862 Industrial Exhibition in London.

In 1864 Daniel Spill, who had a factory producing waterproof rubberised cloth, contacted Alexander Parkes offering the use of his rubber processing factory and machinery for the development and manufacture of Parkesine. By 1866 the new product had been sufficiently developed to warrant the floating of the 'Parkesine Company' with Spill as the general manager. Neither Parkes nor Spill managed to perfect the new substance, and no products were ever sold. In 1868 Parkes left to pursue his many other interests and the Parkesine Company was wound up.

Daniel Spill, who had acquired most of the assets of the former Parkesine Company, continued research and development and registered the 'Xylonite Company' in 1869. Spill registered many patents relating to 'xyloidine' (the original scientific name for nitrated cellulose) during 1869 and 1870. Many of these patents were also registered with the 'United States Patent Office'. Development continued, although many similar patents were being registered in the USA by John Wesley Hyatt. Although researchers now agree that most of Hyatt's discoveries were made independently of those made by Spill and Parkes, It is not surprising that Spill considered that the Hyatt patents infringed his own. In 1872 Hyatt registered 'The Celluloid Manufacturing Company' to exploit his patents. Eventually, in 1876, Spill left for the USA to contest the Hyatt patents, held by The Celluloid Manufacturing Company, in the US courts.

Meanwhile, Levi Parsons Merriam, had established a business next door to the Xylonite Company to make products from the cellulose nitrate made by them. In 1877 the directors of the Xylonite Company decided to reconstitute the company as 'The British Xylonite Company'. The new company took over the existing Spill patents. After a few months LP Merriam's business was incorporated into the new company and L.P. Merriam become the general manager.

Finally, in 1880, Daniel Spill lost his patent battle against the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, as it was ruled that the patents Spill was attempting to protect, from infringement by the Hyatts, were based on prior discoveries of Parkes. To recoup his losses Spill considered selling all his patents to an American concern. It seems that he had forgotten that 'his' patents had been transferred to the British Xylonite Company in 1877. Merriam came to hear of Spill's activities and hurried to the USA to forestall him.

Merriam contacted Levi L. Brown a U.S. paper manufacturer of Adams, Massachusetts. It is not clear who initiated the contact. An agreement was reached between Merriam and Brown and in exchange for £3,784 in cash and £5000 of shares 'The American Zylonite Company', in early 1881, was licensed to use the former Spill patents now held by The British Xylonite Company. It was logical for a paper company to produce cellulose nitrate as The Celluloid Manufacturing Company had already shown that paper was the best source of cellulose.

A factory was built between the cities of Adams and North Adams, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, at a site known then, and now, as Zylonite. The chief officers of the company were Levi L. Brown and Dr. Emil Kipper, with George M Mowbray as Technical Director. George Mowbray had more than ten years experience in the nitration of glycerine  to produce nitro-glycerine. Huge quantities of nitro-glycerine were required for the construction of the nearby Hoosac Mountain railway tunnel. Other important employees were J.G. Jarvis, who had started his career in plastics with John W. Hyatt and J.B. Edson who also left the Celluloid Manufacturing Company to work for American Zylonite.

The new company was very successful and formed three subsidiaries for the manufacture of various products from cellulose nitrate.

By 1885 the company employed over 500 people and was regarded as a serious rival to the Celluloid Company. It is recorded that 126 people worked in the packaging department alone, making cases and boxes for the company's products. Amongst those products were:

The Celluloid Manufacturing Company, meanwhile, was pursuing a case in the courts claiming that Spill's patents, under which the American Zylonite Company was manufacturing cellulose nitrate, contravened their own patents. The first judgement in the case went against the Celluloid Manufacturing Company, but on appeal the original decision was reversed.

Unfortunately at the same time as the loss of the patents, which resulted in an award to the Celluloid Manufacturing Company of over one million dollars, a bank failure caused severe losses to Levi Brown. This double blow forced the American Zylonite Company out of business. Production ceased in January 1891, and all assets were sold to the Celluloid Manufacturing Company for $950,000. The equipment, and some of the personnel, were transferred to the Celluloid Manufacturing Company's Newark, New Jersey, plant. Also, on this date the name of the company was changed to 'The Celluloid Company'. More than 525 of the employees of this major local employer lost their jobs. The local newspaper referred to the Celluloid Company as "The soulless Newark concern".

The last recorded owner of the site of the Zylonite factory was The Curtis Fine Paper Company. They were declared bankrupt in 2003, and the site is now up for sale (as at September 2005). The modern day address of the site is as follows:

Adams Mill
115 Howland Avenue
MA 01220