The History of Plastic: The Invention of Throwaway Living

by Bill McCool on 03/10/2020 | 10 Minute Read

This is the first part of our series, The History of Plastic. You can find the second chapter here.


I’ve always loved flipping through the pages of old magazines like Life or National Geographic. I would pour over these with a pair of scissors, and the result was a sprawling collage in my childhood bedroom and more than a handful of mixtapes to girlfriends decorated with nostalgic snapshots. And sure, there was beautiful photography and vintage advertisements, but it was a glimpse of a world that now feels entirely foreign and unreachable. 

The August 1955 issue of Life is no exception. The cover touts the meeting of the “Big Four” at the Geneva Summit—Dwight Eisenhower, along with the leaders of Russia, Great Britain, and France. It was a Cold War-era powwow to ease international tensions and talk global peace, trade, and disarmament. Who could have predicted the dissolving of the Soviet Union, let alone the seemingly chummy BFF-alliance of Trump and Putin?

Buried on page 43, you’ll find a quirky announcement about a new way of living—typical of every publication on the magazine rack even to this day—a fluff piece joyously proclaiming that this is how we live now, and, by golly, things won’t be the same.

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“Throwaway Living,” they called it, promising a world of disposable items that would cut down on household chores. Pictured, you see what appears to be a Life stock couple as well as their pretend child greeting this new dawn with open arms as disposable items fly through the air. You’ll find paper plates and towels, popcorn that pops in its own packaging, as well as paper cups and frozen food containers, plastic cutlery, and trash bags. Every item in the picture, they claim, would take 40-hours to clean, “except that no housewife need bother.” Just use once, and then throw it away.

On the fifth page, you will also find an advertisement for a “handy new way to buy salt,” ready-filled Morton shakers for the stove or table that come plastic-wrapped and plastic-topped.

“When a Morton Salter is empty, just throw it away and open a fresh one.”

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***

Disposable living is deeply ingrained in our culture, and plastic is the material that drives our throwaway lifestyle. Its threads of polymers make up the very fabric of our lives, and the substance comes from a whole host of synthetic or organic compounds you can shape into pretty much anything you want.

All it takes are some petrochemicals to make plastic, and it’s pretty cheap to produce. You know how glass packaging signals premium to consumers? That’s because it costs more to manufacture a glass bottle. They’re also heavier and tend to break, and, because they weigh more, they are costlier to ship. After all, there’s a reason Coca-Cola and PepsiCo keep producing beverages in plastic.

And it’s entirely ubiquitous. You likely touch plastic dozens of times throughout the day. You are ingesting it—and, yes, you are pooping it too.                 

***

If you want to track down the origins of throwaway living, you first have to go back to 1907 and the creation of Bakelite. You could talk about John Wesley Hyatt and the invention of thermoplastics or Alexander Parkes and his celluloid Parkesin in the 19th century as both created easily molded materials. You could even talk about how it was the pool hall that was responsible for the very invention of plastic itself as players were looking for an inexpensive replacement for ivory billiard balls.

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Billiard balls made of Bakelite.

But there’s a distinction you have to make when it comes to Bakelite, as it was the first fully synthetic plastic—meaning that none of the molecules that made up the material could be found in nature.

Bakelite inventor Leo Baekeland first made a fortune by selling off his photographic paper Velox to George Eastman of Eastman Kodak. With the money he made from the sale, he moved his family to Yonkers and dedicated himself to tinkering in his fully-equipped laboratory in the backyard. Now, with all the free time in the world, he could devote himself to whatever piqued his interest.

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Above: Leo Baekeland

And that happened to be finding a replacement for shellac. At the time, shellac was used as insulation for electrical cables, but procuring the stuff proved difficult. To make shellac, you needed to collect a resin secreted by the lac bug, and you would do this by scraping off the deposits from the trees they call home.

So Leo started combining phenol and formaldehyde, with the end result and shellac substitute being Novolak. Though nothing came of it, this would serve as the basis for Bakelite. Now, there were a lot of chemists and manufacturers that were experimenting and producing these human-made polymers, but it's Leo who ultimately revolutionized plastics. Again, he was still mixing phenol and formaldehyde, but this time out, he would adjust the pressure and temperature, and experimenting on a piece of wood, he was able to impregnate it with his synthetic resin.

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That material, which readily hardened and was extremely moldable, was Bakelite, or, as Baekeland dubbed it, the “material of a thousand uses.” After patenting it in 1909 and forming the General Bakelite Company, they started producing laminating varnish, but what’s remarkable about the material is that it came of age during the height of the Art Deco movement. Sure, it was suitable for the automotive and electrical companies because of how it could withstand high temperatures and its electrical nonconductivity, but in some ways, it became an object of desire. Even today, Bakelite has an air of retro-cool and is much sought after by the flea market and eBay set—poker chips, cigarette holders, housewares—you name it. 

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Because Bakelite could do a reasonable enough impression of precious gems, it was used often as costume jewelry in the 1920s, some of it designed by the likes of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. Bakelite was also used for the housing in radios and cameras—for radios, it could imitate wooden fixtures, and when used in manufacturing, it brought down the price of them significantly, which was a necessity as the Great Depression ripped the country apart.

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Baekeland even made the cover of Time back in 1924, and they said, "From the time that a man brushes his teeth in the morning with a Bakelite-handled brush until the moment when he removes his last cigarette from a Bakelite holder, extinguishes it in a Bakelite ashtray and falls back upon a Bakelite bed, all that he touches, sees, uses will be made of this material of a thousand purposes. Book and papers will be set in Bakelite type. People will read Bakeliterature, Bakelitigate their cases, offer Bakeliturgies for their dead, bring young into the world in Bakelitters." 

Bakelite would eventually fall out of fashion, as it couldn’t really take on color—this was not the Pantone dream, after all. And while the material was durable, it was also very, very cheap to make and part of why the plastic industry boomed the way it did. 

So whenever you hear someone say something about “cheap, plastic crap,” well, you can thank Leo Baekeland.

***

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There’s more to the DuPonts than just pollution, incest, and killing wrestlers—at least that’s what the family is synonymous with these days.

Perhaps one of their greatest gifts to the world is the invention of nylon. Invented by Wallace Carothers, Dupont first used the synthetic thermoplastic polymer for the bristles in toothbrushes, but it was women's’ stockings that put the material in the limelight.

The 1939 New York World’s Fair played host to a murderer’s row of exhibits and inventions that promised the “Dawn of a New Day.” Sure, the Viewmaster and Scentovision were in attendance as well, but it was also the public debut of air conditioning, the fax machine, and, of course, nylon. Dupont promised “the first man-made, organic textile fabric prepared entirely from new materials from the mineral kingdom,” and it was a hit among women as it was much cheaper than silk stockings, which could tear easily. In May of 1940, they released nylon stockings to the world, and within a year, they had sold nearly 64 million pairs.

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And then World War II happened. Production of stockings would come to a full stop, with the wonder material redirected to the war effort. Now, nylon was conscripted for the manufacturing of parachutes, body armor, tents, shoelaces, and rope. Just as quickly as it upended women’s fashion, it was gone, and to imitate the look of stockings, women would draw a line up the back of their leg to make it appear as if it were a stocking seam (oddly enough, gravy stock was a popular option).

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But nylon wasn’t the only wonder material to fall by the wayside when it came to the war, nor was it the only material to get utilized. Before the US got involved in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the US produced 213 million pounds of plastic in 1939. By 1945, that ballooned to 818 million pounds

Plexiglass would find its way into submarines and aircraft, serving as glass in periscopes and, more importantly, aircraft windshields, because why use something previously made of glass that could crack or break off in shards and impair a pilot’s vision? Sure, acrylics can splinter and break in the same way, but it was certainly less harmful than glass.

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Cellophane was already on the market, and you could find it wrapping things like Whitman’s chocolates. Not only was it moisture resistant, but it could keep food fresh for extended periods. Because of this, it got used to wrap food rations for soldiers, but it would also come in handy as a gas cape, which, in turn, made for a handy rain poncho. After the war was over, plastic wrap would become a substitute for aluminum foil.

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There’s a whole class of WWII buffs out there that will tell you it was radar that won the war, and while it certainly didn’t hurt the Allies, you wouldn't have the technology if not for polyethylene. Not only was it used in underwater cabling, but it was a chief component for lightweight radar insulation, and a top-secret material to boot.

Now, the British could track German aircraft because of the lightweight material on their planes, and they were able to drive the Germans into Russia during the Battle of Britain. Today, we manufacture more than 110 million tons of polyethylene every year, and it’s the most popular form of plastic. 

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It’s not that the war proved that these would be versatile materials that we would use in our every life, but it certainly helped usher them in. Plastic was instrumental to the war effort, and the expansion and explosion of it only further proved its viability to a world that wanted cheap, fast, and good. 

It was one other Dupont product that would also play a supporting role at the end of the war. The Manhattan Project would result in the creation of the first nuclear weapon, and it was Dupont’s Teflon, and it’s resistance to corrosion, that would make it a viable option for containers and the unstable gases they held. 

***

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After WWII, Americans had money to burn, and, as it turned out, they wanted plastics. 

When nylon stockings finally made their long-awaited return to the US, Dupont couldn’t quite keep up with demand as they started producing goods for consumers once again. At one department store in Pittsburgh, 40,000 women lined up for some reported 13,000 pairs of stockings, with fights breaking out and store displays getting trampled, an event that was all too common because of the demand for inexpensive hosiery that coined these incidents as “nylon riots.”

But there was also something else at play. Soldiers now returned from the battlefield and were settling down, and the G.I. Bill made it so that veterans could get loans to start businesses or purchase homes with a low-cost mortgage, as well as receive tuition or vocational training. Additionally, after the war, marriages in the US spiked, and with it, so did the birth rate. Now, with an army of Baby Boomers and just-hitched Americans, you had young families with a desire to free themselves from the tediousness of housework. And what might help ease some of that burden? 

I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics.

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Products like cellophane and nylon, introduced before the war, had made their mark on consumers, and the world was ready for them. Here was this material that promised to make our lives more manageable and usher in a new era of consumers who were flush with cash in a post-war world. 

And, for quite some time, it was all gravy. You can’t deny the material has revolutionized our world, from the way we package and store food to prolong shelf life to how it has aided the healthcare industry in cutting down on infectious diseases or the development of innovative procedures and medical devices. This was an indestructible marvel of ingenuity and science.

But that was also the problem. Plastic is virtually indestructible. All of the plastic ever manufactured is still with us, unless, of course, it was incinerated, and we all know how good that is for the environment. It will take 450 years for it to biodegrade, and that’s if it even does at all, because we don’t actually know.

But in 1955, who really knew? 

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