Cup 'Harlequin Ware', 'Duperite', plastic, made by Moulded Products (Australasia) Pty. Ltd, Australia, 1930-1936
Plastics have been described as " materials that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure or heat." They were a cultural phenomenon in the twentieth century when they changed the way objects were produced, designed and used. It was also in the twentieth century that most plastic products moved away from natural raw materials to synthetically produced ones.
Before the arrival of synthetic resins natural plastics such as amber, horn, tortoiseshell, bitumen, shellac, gutta-percha and rubber were used to mould and manufacture artifacts. Horn was the most used of these products and by 1600 moulding was being used to produce horn products. This ability to mould products quickly and cheaply rather than carve them became the prime motivating force behind the development of plastics.
By the middle of the nineteenth century tortoiseshell and ivory were becoming expensive and this encouraged the search for alternate materials. in 1852 Alexander Parkes developed cellulose nitrate into a mouldable dough he called Parkesine. By 1860 it was being pressed into moulds to make billiard balls, pens, and even artificial teeth.
By 1900 there were a number of plastics being produced but it was still a relatively small industry and as Susan Mossmann, an historian of plastics states "Â? a typical middle-class family would encounter few plastics as they went about their daily business. Perhaps women would wear Celluloid combs in their hair, or carry Celluloid evening bags. If in mourning, they might wear artificial jet jewellery made of Vulcanite, have celluloid or casein cosmetic boxes and use celluloid backed brushes and mirrors." By the end of the twentieth century most of these products had been replaced by synthetic plastics. Others found niche markets and lasted for longer such as the use of shellac to make gramophone records which lasted into the 1940s.
The first fully synthetic plastic was developed in early twentieth century by Leo Baekeland. His new plastic was named Bakelite and heralded in a new era as this plastic was not only lighter than metal it could be made into a wide variety of objects traditionally made from wood or metal. During the First World War Bakelite was used for electrical insulators such as plugs and switches as well as Thermos flasks and cigarette boxes.
In the 1930s there was a surge of interest in plastics and plastic products particularly coloured Urea-formaldehyde laminates. These products had excellent temperature resistance but, unlike early Bakelite, could be produced in different colours. In the 1920s trade names such as Beetle appeared and their light swirling colours were used to produce table ware and domestic products. Formica plastic laminate revolutionised kitchens and did away with the wooden draining boards and stone surfaces.
A.R, Penfold Curator/Director at the Technological Museum (as the Powerhouse Museum was then known) was keenly interested in promoting the plastics industry in Australia. In 1945 Penfold's skills were sought by the New South Wales government and he travelled the world on their behalf reporting on the state of the industry. In his 1945 article in the magazine 'Australian Plastics' he described plastics in Australia as "an industry so promising in its possibilities [it] deserves the very best quality of personnel in every grade of occupation."
This object is made of an early plastic moulded from a thiourea-formaldehyde resin powder. The most popular form of this powder was first marketed in 1928 by the British Cyanide Company as 'Beetle' powder. However within a few years there were a range of other companies manufacturing similar thiourea/urea products such as 'Pollopas', 'Resopal' and 'Cibanoid'. These products were less resistant to water and allowed coloured effects but they were also more susceptible to heat than many other plastics. One noticeable feature of products such as lamp shades and electrical fittings using this material is the very distinct smell they give off when decomposing.
Plasticware such as this was marketed under the name of 'Harlequin' ware by the Dunlop-Perdriau Rubber Co. Ltd who donated this and a number of other items to the museum in 1940. Henry and Stephen Perdriau were among the first in Sydney to pioneer plastic products in Sydney. In 1885 Henry began importing rubber for railway carriage buffers and as demand increased he opened a plant at Drummoyne, Sydney, and by 1888 was an agent for English, German and American rubber companies.
Increasing demand and protection after Federation resulted in the formation of the Perdriau Rubber Co. Ltd in 1904. The company amalgamated with the Dunlop Rubber Co. of Australasia Ltd between 1928 and 1935.
Mossman, S., (ed.), Early Plastics; perspectives, 1850-1950, Leicester University Press, London, 1997
Penfold, A. R., 'Penfold reports from London', in Cooper, R. B., (ed), 'Australian Plastics', Vol1, No. 4, 1945
Mossman, S., Morris, P. J. T., (eds.), 'The Development of Plastics', Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1993
Kaufman, M., 'The First century of Plastics', The Plastics and Rubber Institute, London, 1991?
Geoff Barker, March 2007