Friday, October 16, 2020

All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go


QUESTION: Over the years, I’ve noticed dresser sets at flea markets and antique cooperatives. They seem to be made of some sort of plastic and look like they date from the 1940s and 1950s. I’d like to begin collecting these sets. They’re affordable and some are quite beautiful. What can you tell me about them?

ANSWER: Ever since Ancient Egypt, people, especially women, have been obsessed with their looks. As time went on, the utensils for maintaining a person’s looks evolved into a group with common elements—a brush, comb, mirror, hair receiver, powder puff holder, manicure set, and later on a pin box, atomizer, and button hook. And the material needed to make them evolved from that needed to make billiard balls and dentures. 

Dresser sets were the original make-up organizers. Manufactured from Victorian times through the 1950s, these sets changed in form but not in function. Women prominently displayed them on their vanities and men on their chests. 

The dresser sets you’ve been seeing are made of Celluloid. Most people associate Celluloid with motion picture film. But it was one of several plastics developed in the latter 19th and early 20th century.

Celluloid was first manufactured in 1870 and continued until 1947. After the Civil War there was a need for a substance with moldable properties that could replace dwindling supplies of natural materials, such as ivory. During the latter part of the 1860s, brothers John and Isaiah Hyatt worked on developing a thermoplastic material that not only simulated expensive luxury substances but also became widely used hi other applications In fact, Celluloid became so successful it ultimately gave birth to a thriving American industry. That industry lives on in the collecting of a great variety of Celluloid items that 'range from colorful advertising premiums, embossed albums and decorative storage boxes, to figural toys, ornate jewelry and fancy household and personal accessories.

The development of America’s plastics industry began in Albany, New York, around 1863 when a journeyman printer named John Hyatt began experimenting with various composition substances in an attempt to create an ivory for the manufacture of billiard balls. Elephant ivory was becoming scarce and the billiards industry had offered a $10,000 reward for the invention of a suitable re-placement material. In September 1865, Hyatt applied for a patent on his invention of a billiard ball coaled with a combination of shellac mixed with ivory and bone dust. In 1866 Hyatt and Peter Kinnear formed the Hyatt Billiard Ball Company.

It was around this time when Hyatt discovered that collodion, a liquid solution of pyroxylin (cellulose nitrate and alcohol) that printers brushed on their hands to protect them from ink and paper cuts, formed into a hard, but pliable, clear substance when dried, Hyatt patented the use of liquid collodion as a coating for composition core billiard balls.

In his efforts to perfect the billiard ball, Hyatt enlisted the support of his older brother, Isaiah, a newspaper editor from Rockford, Ill. Together the Hyatts discovered that camphor acted as a plasticizer when combined with solid collodion (cellulose nitrate) and under certain conditions yielded a clear, moldable material. John further developed a "stuffing machine" that forced the material into shape using heat and pressure. They named their substance Celluloid, a word that Isaiah came up with by combining the two words cellulose and colloid.

Ultimately the scarcity of high priced rubber and the abundance of inexpensive Celluloid forced dentists into using the new material. Celluloid eventually became the most popular material for dentures until the introduction of cellulose acetate in 1929 in Newark, New Jersey. It was there that the mass production of the nation's first commercially successful plastic began.

The years that followed found John Hyatt diligently at work building molding machinery and finding successful applications for Celluloid. Harness rings, utensil, handles, knobs and dressing combs were among the earliest of molded articles, introduced for the first time to consumers around 1873.

Clear in its original state, celluloid could therefore be dyed in the finest imitation of expensive luxury substances. In 1874, chemists discovered successful formulas for flawless imitations of genuine coral and tortoiseshell, soon followed by convincing simulations of amber, onyx, and grained ivory. Suddenly, the potential for applications of molded Celluloid expanded, shifting from utilitarian and sporting goods, to decorative and ornamental objects. Beautiful accessories like jewelry, eyeglass frames, fans, hair ornaments, parasol handles and a myriad of other fancy items became available, and immensely popular with those who previously couldn’t afford such luxury items. As a result of its convincing appearance for the genuine material it imitated, Celluloid became coveted for its beauty and fine quality.

Four businessmen involved in the manufacture of natural plastic hair ornaments, dressing combs and novelties, formed the Viscoloid Company of Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1900. One of the founders, Bernard Doyle, had been traveling throughout Europe to purchase horn, when he became acquainted with pyroxylin plastic. Upon his return. Doyle began a series of experiments with the material and determined that it had qualities superior to that of natural materials for the molding of hair combs and accessories.

The more items included in a dresser set, the more rare and valuable it s to collectors. Most often, however, the sets will have a brush, a comb, and a hand mirror. 

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