1. What is celluloid?
Celluloid is known as the first plastic. Celluloid is a brand name. From the late 19th century to the 1940s accessories and collectibles were fashioned from Celluloid. The material was widely popular as a substitute for ivory. The yellow Celluloid accessories with graining often look like ivory. In the past Celluloid was known as French Ivory. Although many people think that Celluloid is ivory coloured, this material was also decorated in vibrant colours. It is very durable and celluloid antiques are often in first rate condition in the 21st century.
2. Who invented celluloid
29 December 1813 – 29 June 1890
Picture: Science Museum
A brief history of Celluloid:
In 1866 a British man named Alexander Parkes invented Parkesine. He was based in Birmingham, England. It was considered to be the first thermoplastic (a material that becomes plastic on heating). Initially it was patented as a waterproofing agent for clothes. In 1862 Mr Parkes exhibited his invention at the Great Exhibition of London where he was awarded a bronze medal. Unfortunately, Mr Parkes went bankrupt before he could capitalize on his invention.
Parkesine plastics were made by dissolving nitrocellulose in solvents such as alcohol or methanol. Once dissolved camphor & oil were mixed in with the substance. The material is known to be flammable when heated.
Nitrocellulose is made by treating cellulose with concentrated nitric acid. Cellulose is a structural component of the cell wall of green plants.
In the industrial setting cellulose comes mainly from wood pulp & cotton.
In 1867 Alexander Parkes’s business partner, Daniel Spill, patented Xylonite, a less volatile formulation. Daniel Spill was the founder of the Xylonite Company (later the British Xylonite Company Ltd.)
John Wesley Hyatt
(November 28 1837 - May 10 1920)
It is said that the billiard ball manufacturer, Phelan & Collander were so concerned that the demand for billiard balls outweighed the supply of ivory that they offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could manufacture a viable alternative. Whether or not this inspired John Wesley Hyatt we do not know. Nor do we know if the prize was ever awarded. However, Hyatt bought Alexander Parkes’ patent & he started to conduct experiments with cellulose nitrate. His aim was to produce billiard balls. Hyatt also used ivory dust, cloth & shellac (a resin secreted by the lac bug which once treated with ethanol makes liquid shellac). In 1869 he patented a method of covering billiard balls with the addition of nitrocellulose. He, Peter Kinnear & the Hyatt brothers founded the Albany Billiard Ball Company (1868-1986) of Albany in New York. The Hyatt brothers understood that camphor was an important plasticizer for cellulose nitrate. Isaiah Hyatt named the material ‘Celluloid’ in 1872.
Celluloid soon became a very useful and durable material that was used to replace ivory handles on baby rattles, cutlery sets and household goods. Beautiful Celluloid accessories and jewellery were also very much in demand. In the manufacturing setting Celluloid is highly flammable and its production had almost ended by the 1940s, as it was replaced by less volatile materials.
In the 21st century Celluloid is still used in the manufacture of table tennis balls.
3. Are Celluloid powder compacts and accessories valuable?
In good condition Celluloid powder compacts and accessories are highly collectible. Essentially, any item is worth what someone will pay for it. Keeping abreast of auction sale results can help aid valuation. Certain themes, for example: Ballet, equestrian, canine, feline, romantic and elegant themes / designs are highly prized & can be worth hundreds of £s.
4. How can I find the value of my Celluloid collectibles?
The best way to find out how much your piece is worth is to take it to your local auction house for a valuation, there are also valuation services provided by sites like My Vintage Cash Cow which are well worth contacting about the value of your items. If an identical item in the same condition comes up for auction this will give you a good indication of how much an item is worth. Bear in mind that auction / shop costs and extras are included in the price.
5. Where can I find vintage & antique Celluloid compacts?
Here at The Vintage Compact Shop we have a wide variety of stunning vintage celluloid collectibles in fine and excellent condition. Our wide collection is the result of many years spent aquiring these gorgeous little items from both online & offline sources.
Rare Celluloid vanities & compact mirrors:
The ivory like quality of this early plastic made vanities look expensive & luxurious. Certainly the appeal of any non-animal substitute for ivory is obvious. Celluloid is highly durable & as you can see from the powder compacts the material appears not to have aged during the time that has elapsed since it was made.
6. How to store:
In normal situations Celluloid vanities and accessories are safe to use. However, it is flammable and so it should be kept away from heat sources including window ledges and areas where the suns rays will make it hot. Also if your attic gets hot in summer this is not an ideal area to keep Celluloid. We like to store our collection in cardboard boxes lined with acid free tissue paper. The boxes have air holes so the collectibles can breathe. We never store powder compacts in plastic bags, as condensation is bad for mirrors. It is considered good practise to store Celluloid accessories in their own box. The following paragraph details why.
Although we have never seen Celluloid breaking down it can happen and then nitric acid vapour could be released. This will corrode metal. This probably due to incorrect storage / damp conditions. It has been stated that Celluloid rot is "contagious". This is not a correct statement. However, if other items were stored with Celluloid in really bad condition, which is releasing vapour, these fumes will damage neighbouring items made from metal.
7. How can I tell if an item is made from celluloid?
The preferred method of testing an item to see if it is made from Celluloid is to put it under the tap and let the hot water run over it. The aroma of camphor will confirm the accessory is made from Celluloid. If your Celluloid antique contains mirrors, glued on motifs or foil, great caution should be exercise when conducting this test. Water can ruin mirrors and foil. The heat from the hot water can dissolve the glue. We do not recommend running water over valuable collectibles.
8. How do I clean Celluloid accessories?
Many collectors disapprove of antiques and vintage items being cleaned. The longer you have been a collector the more you understand this point of view. It is as though the item is more authentic having the patina that it has acquired over time rather than it being polished to look as though it is new. Also the self-loathing that you feel when you ruined a perfectly good item by incorrect cleaning is hard to bear. However, if you really feel that you must clean your Celluloid accessory a very soft cloth that is only slightly damp will remove dirt. After this dry the item thoroughly with a soft dry cloth (not using a heat source) and leave it to stand on in an area away from heat sources. Only when it is completely dry return it to the storage area.