Celluloid - When Plastic was Fantastic

In 1869, John Wesley Hyatt of New Jersey patented an invention called celluloid and, in doing so, created the world's first semi-synthetic plastic. Hyatt was on a quest of discovery, inspired by a $10,000 reward offered by a billiard ball manufacturer in search of a suitable alternative to ivory. 

His invention proved a lousy match for billiard balls as the celluloid occasionally burst into flames on the tables, so Hyatt didn't receive his reward. However, his invention turned button manufacturing on its head, eventually causing the demise of the metal, glass, and pearl buttons that are so common in our collection.

Celluloid can imitate many expensive or rare materials such as ivory, tortoiseshell, marble, and mother-of-pearl, so it was quickly used to manufacture affordable non-essential fancy goods for the growing middle classes in Europe and America. Indeed in the late 19th century, the word celluloid became a generic household word, much like kleenex and band-aids did in the 20th century.

By the 1880s, celluloid was ubiquitous. It was used to make postcards, game pieces, toys, advertising novelties, souvenirs, jewelry, knitting needles, razor handles, collars and cuffs, and of course, buttons. Its most common use was for the film used to create the first motion pictures.

Assortment of celluloid goods and novelties made roughly between 1900 and 1940: an advertising hand mirror, dresser set, manicure scissors, hair comb, and anchor brooch.

Celluloid’s popularity arose from its innate versatility. It could be prepared as a clear sheet or pigmented to imitate almost any material, including tortoiseshell, marble, agate, glass, jade, choral, ivory, jet, or even pearl. The most beautiful Victorian-era celluloid buttons were printed on paper-thin sheets in patterns that imitated these beautiful natural materials. The celluloid in these buttons was often sandwiched between an ornate pierced-brass top and a rimmed brass bottom.

The most sought-after Victorian celluloid are called ivoroids. Victorians adored their pale ivory color and embossed images imitating carved ivory. These detailed buttons were almost always set in metal with a standard lacquered steel back and wire shank.

The three ivoroids in our button museum are all related to popular 19th century stories, paintings, or novels: the legend of Flora and the Hind; Sarah Lennox at Holland House from a painting by Joshua Reynolds; and Lucy and Edgar from Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor.

The other most valuable type of late 19th-century celluloid buttons has a clear celluloid cover, protecting a lithographed paper image set in a metal rim with a lacquered steel back. Most of these buttons feature printed portraits of 18th-century luminaries such as Count Fersen and the Duchess of Devonshire.

This small card of lithograph under celluloid buttons from our button museum displays several images of France’s King Louis XVI as a child or young man.

Celluloid buttons were produced in many ways in the early 20th century. Sometimes the entire button was cut from a thick celluloid sheet. These buttons were called celluloid wafers and were common in the 1920s. Single-sheet wafers were often embossed with simple geometric designs, while the more striking multi-layer ones were carved to reveal the different colored layers.

The bold geometric designs and fascinating layers of color for which celluloid wafers are loved are clearly displayed on this card from our button museum.

During the 1930s and 1940s, celluloid buttons were colorful, creative, and commonly decorated in striking Art Deco styles. One of our favorite types was made from a transparent stenciled sheet of celluloid molded into a bubble and then stretched over a metal back. These often had a pearlized or reflective liner that produced a sweet glow.

This small grouping of celluloid bubble buttons exhibits their vivid glowing effect, created by a reflective liner.

From the 1930s through the 1950s celluloid buttons were often playful and colorful, serving perhaps as cheerful distractions from the hardships experienced during the Great Depression and World War II.  The most whimsical of these were the realistic buttons, also known as goofies, which were made in the shapes of objects such as fruits and vegetables, clothespins, pencils, cartoon characters, cats, dogs, and even cigarette packages. In our button museum, our founder Susan's most treasured buttons are the celluloid calla lilies and apple halves she played with in her mother's button tin.

1930s-1940s ‘goofy’ or realistic buttons always bring a smile to our faces. And that’s what they were meant to do for women during the Great Depression and World War II–they were little cheerful bits of whimsy to sew onto the era’s homemade dresses and blouses.

Celluloid could also be heated, extruded through a nozzle, and drizzled into spaghetti-like buttons. These are some of the strangest mid-century plastic buttons.

We’ve always felt that extruded or ‘spaghetti’ celluloid buttons deserve a place in our imaginary gallery of ugly buttons, but we suppose they should also be recognized for their innovative strangeness.

Celluloid can be identified by inserting a hot needle into the back of a celluloid button. You know the button is authentic if there is a sizzling or popping sound, a plume of smoke, and a distinct smell of camphor.

Because of its unfortunate propensity for bursting into flames, celluloid fell out of use by the mid-20th century. Celluloid movie and photography films were both replaced by safer cellulose acetate in 1952. Other more stable plastics were used to create all manner of everyday items from picture frames to hand mirrors to bracelet bangles. In the 21st century, one item only is still created with celluloid: hollow celluloid ping pong balls produce the perfect bounce and are still used worldwide.