Celluloid was one of the first synthetic plastics ever invented. Originally it was created as Parkesine by Alexander Parkes in 1856 and gradually refined by John Wesley Hyatt to become Celluloid in 1863 – he was actually trying to create fake ivory for billiard balls at the time. It is created from plant material that contains nitrocellulose and camphor with added dyes and other substances.
It had a few disadvantages, the main one being that when exposed to heat or friction it gave off a strong smell of camphor – not unpleasant but not necessarily welcomed. It was extremely thin and light and easy to dent or crack. The other main disadvantage was that it was highly flammable – although despite urban legends, not explosive. Right up until 2014 many table tennis balls were made of celluloid…so clearly, if it were explosive, it wouldn’t have been used for so long.
It was used to make jewellery, dolls heads (replacing the easily breakable china used previously), dental plates for false teeth (we can’t imagine what that must have tasted like), film, dice, handles, nail buffers, ornaments and even lavish toilet seats. Crafty manufacturers used it to replace linen as detachable collars, cuffs, and shirtfronts…which claimed to be wipe clean and never need washing. The camphor smell that came from these clothing items when they were being worn was used to their advantage by the manufacturers who claimed that it was good for the health.
Celluloid, given its ability to be dyed any colour and moulded into any shape, was also used to fake ivory, coral, semi-precious stones and tortoiseshell items. Combs, glasses frames and buttons were created to look as if they were made from much more expensive substances.
Items made of celluloid are becoming increasingly collectable – but also increasingly hard to find. Celluloid is not a particularly durable plastic and can break down over time. Much of it has also been lost when it has caught alight (particularly old film reels given their proximity to a hot bulb when in use).
Celluloid has a tendency to damage other vintage plastics if kept alongside them so always store it separately. If you fear that your celluloid item is starting to rot (break down), you can stall this process for a while by soaking it in a solution of baking soda and water…but this will only delay the inevitable.
If you’re not sure whether your item is celluloid or another substance, rub it vigorously with your finger or a cloth for a few moments (if it is painted, or detailed, find an undecorated area to do this). If it is too delicate to rub, warm a part of it with warm water. True celluloid will give of a camphor/vinegar smell.
The safest way to clean celluloid is simply soap and water…making sure to rinse and dry thoroughly. Over time it will break down, nothing can prevent this inevitability – so enjoy it while you can.