Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual

НазваниеMake the most of your plastics: an e-manual
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Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual

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Is this site for you?

This site aims to help people with plastics in their care make the most of them. It is intended for those with little or no prior knowledge of plastics and as a starting point for further exploration. It will help you identify and look after objects made of plastics whatever the subject of your museum. It also demonstrates how plastics have increasingly become significant for how life is lived with the intention of suggesting stories about plastics relevant to museums of widely different subject areas.


  • Plastics stories

  • Plastics identification

  • Plastics care

  • Sources of information

  • Contact us

  • Contributors


Plastics have infiltrated almost everything to do with life and living from aviation to zip fasteners. They are found in art and design, social history and technological collections and are also among the ethnographic materials of the 20th century. They are a significant part of our cultural heritage. The stories that can be told about plastics are infinite. The Plastics timeline introduces different plastics in a way that it is hoped will make clear the relevance of plastics to museums of diverse subject matter and suggest themes for research and display about plastics.

  • Plastics timeline

Plastics Timeline

1712 John O’Brisset moulds snuff boxes from horn.

1823 Macintosh uses rubber gum to waterproof cotton and the ‘mac’ is born.

1839 First deliberate chemical modification of a natural polymer produces vulcanised rubber, see vulcanite.

1851 Gutta percha used to insulate submarine telegraph cables between England and France.

1854 Shellac mixed with wood flour patented in USA as moulding material for making ‘union cases’, protective frames for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, early forms of photographs on glass.

1855 Soccer ball with vulcanised rubber panels, glued at the seams, designed and produced by Charles Goodyear.

1861-87 Queen Victoria’s mourning for the Prince Consort fuels the production of imitation jet mourning jewellery in such materials as cellulose nitrate, hard rubber and horn.

1862 A range of toiletry and household objects, some imitating the appearance of tortoiseshell and ivory, made of an early form of cellulose nitrate, is displayed at the International Exhibition in London. The material was called Parkesine after its inventor Alexander Parkes. Ultimately Parkesine fails as a commercial venture.

1870 In USA Hyatt brothers in search of substitute material for ivory billiard balls turn cellulose nitrate into a commercially viable material. Dental palates are one of their good sellers. They register the name ‘Celluloid’ for their material in 1873.

1884 Cellulose nitrate modified to make artificial silk, called Chardonnet silk.

1889 Dunlop Rubber Company founded and motor industry revolutionised.

1888 First commercially successful celluloid (cellulose nitrate) photographic film introduced by George Eastman Kodak.

1890 Thermoforming introduced and used to make babies’ rattles from cellulose nitrate.

1892 Cellulose acetate modified to make a form of artificial silk, called viscose. By 1904 this was known as rayon.

1898 Beginning of mass-production of 78 rpm gramophone records from shellac, for which it remains the most common material until the 1940s.

1899 Casein formaldehyde patented as Galalith in Germany.

1905 Laminated safety glass, first with gelatine but then with cellulose nitrate inter-layer introduced.

1907 First synthetic (lab made) plastic, phenol formaldehyde, better known as Bakelite, later known as ‘the material of a 1000 uses’ introduced.

1910 Viscose stockings begin to be manufactured.

1913 Formica invented.

1915 Queen Mary orders casein jewellery at the British Industries Fair.

1916 Rolls Royce boasts about use of phenol formaldehyde in its car interiors.

1920 Hermann Staudinger publishes his realisation that plastics are made up of polymers. Only in 1953 was the value of his work properly recognised when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

1926 Harrods, the London store, mounts a display of Beetle products, made from a form of thiourea-urea formaldehyde. It is a huge success.

National Grid for electricity is established, fuelling the desire for consumer goods that plug in and switch on, often with plastic housings.

1929 Bakelite Ltd receives its largest ever order of phenol formaldehyde for the manufacture of the casing of the Siemens Neophone Number 162 telephone.

1930 Scotch Tape, the first transparent (see cellulose acetate) sticky tape, invented.

1933 The British Plastics Federation, the oldest national organisation in the world with plastics in its name, set up.

1935 Couturier, Elsa Schiaparelli, begins to use zips made of cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate in her garments.

1936 Acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) canopies used in Spitfire fighter planes. From 1940 it becomes the most widely used material for aircraft glazing.

1938 First toothbrush with plastic tufts manufactured. The tufts were made of nylon (polyamide).

Introduction of plastic contact lenses. The lenses were made of acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate).

1939 First polythene factory opens in Britain. Polythene plays a crucial role in the insulation of British radar cables during World War II. Entire production for military use.

Plastic Man, a fictional comic-book hero, first appears.

1945 End of the war releases a range of plastics developed to support the war effort on the commercial market looking for uses.

1947 First acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) paint (dissolved in turpentine) becomes available. Appreciated by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein for its intensity and rapid drying properties.

Tupperware, with flexible seals made possible by the invention of polythene, patented in the USA.

1948 Introduction of long playing vinyl copolymer gramophone records

1949 Charles and Ray Eames glass reinforced plastic shell chair showed that plastic could be more than a furniture covering or veneering material.

First Airfix self-assembly model produced. It was made of polystyrene.

Kartell, the Italian firm associated with plastic objects of desire for the home, founded.

1950 Silly Putty, made from silicon, launched at the New York Toy Fair.

Early 1950s The ubiquitous polythene bag makes its first appearance.

1951 First polythene bottle made by Sqezy.

1953 Commercialisation of polyester fibre introduces the concept of ‘wash and wear’ for fabrics.

Chevrolet Corvette, the first mass-produced car with a glass reinforced plastic chassis, begins manufacture.

1954 Synthesis of polypropylene.

1956 Reliant Regal 111, first commercially successful all glass reinforced plastic

bodied car, goes on sale.

Eero Saarinen’s Tulip chair, the seat consisting of a glass reinforced plastic moulded shell, launched.

1957 Invention of polyacetal, the first ‘engineering’ plastic.

The Monsanto Company’s House of the Future with 100% plastic structural parts built at the entrance to Disneyland’s Tomorrowland.

Polyvinyl chloride road cones used in the construction of the M1 motorway.

1958 Invention of the silicon chip.

American Express launches first plastic credit card in US.

Lego decides to concentrate exclusively on plastic toys and patents its stud-and-block coupling system. Originally made of cellulose acetate, it has been made of ABS (acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene) since1963.

1959 Birth of the Barbie doll, made mainly of PVC ( polyvinyl chloride) and the Lycra (copolymer of polyurethane) bra.

Early 1960s Acrylic (polymethyl methacrylate) paint (diluted with water)

comes on market and is soon widely used by artists such as Warhol, Rauschenberg and Hockney.

1962 Silicon gel breast implants pioneered successfully.

1963 Mary Quant launches her ‘Wet Collection” made of plasticised PVC (polyvinyl chloride). It had taken two years to work out how to bond the seams successfully.

Robin Day polypropylene one-piece injection moulded chair shell begins manufacture.

1965 Twiggy models John Bates’s plasticised PVC (polyvinyl chloride) dress.

1967 Inflatable PVC (polyvinyl chloride) ‘Blow’ chair designed by DePas, D’Urbino., Lomazzi and Scolari for Zanotta SpA, launched.

1969 Neil Armstrong plants a nylon (polyamide) flag on the moon.

1969 Beatles’ song ‘Polythene Pam’, the kind of a girl that makes the News of the World released on Abbey Road album.

1970 Verner Panton’s cantilevered stackable chair, the first whole chair to be made out of a single piece of injection-moulded plastic becomes a reality. He had been working on the design since 1960. The first pilot production models were made of glass-reinforced polyester resin in 1967. It has since been made of polyester integral foam, polyurethane, styrene acrylonitrile (SAN) and polypropylene.

1976 Plastic, in its great variety of types, said to be the material with the most uses in the world.

Concorde with its nose cone of purpose-made plastic goes into service.

1977 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) drinks bottle introduced.

1978 PolyStyrene, lead singer of the Punk band X-Ray Spex, bursts on the scene with ‘the day the world turned day glow’.

1980 During this decade ICI and Bayer launch PEEK, PES and PPS as the new engineering thermoplastics, Costs are enormous but specialist applications make a lasting market even after ICI retreats from the plastics market.

1982 First artificial heart made mainly of polyurethane implanted in a human.

1983 The slim Swatch watch launched, its case of ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) and strap of PVC (polyvinyl chloride).

Authentics Ltd., British firm renowned for its sharp, modern designs in various plastics for domestic use, founded.

1988 Triangular recycling symbols identifying different types of plastics introduced.

1990 First biodegradable plastics launched by ICI

1993 Alessi designs its first all plastic product: the Gino Zucchino sugar pourer designed by Guido Venturini.

1994 Smart car with lightweight flexible integrally coloured polycarbonate panels introduced.

1998 Amorphous free standing Zanussi Oz fridge, with insulation and outer-skins made in one process from polyurethane foam, launched.

2000 Issues relating to sustainability and the creation of plastics from renewable sources start gathering momentum.

2005 Nasa explores the advantages of a polythene-based material, RXF1,

for the space-ship that will send man to Mars.

2007 Tate Britain‘s Christmas tree decorated with plastic Airfix planes.


  • Clues to get you started

  • Materials: the basics

  • A – Z of plastic materials

  • Manufacturing processes: the basics

  • A – Z of manufacturing processes

Clues to get you started

There will always be something you can glean from an object itself to help you decide what material it is made of or how it was manufactured. If you have any thoughts to contribute to the questions below click on them and find out how what you know may help. The notes attached to each question aim to help you make the most of what you know about the object to narrow down the options. Once you have done that you can go to the particular materials in the A –Z of plastic materials or the particular manufacturing processes in the A - Z of manufacturing processes to look in more detail at what you have decided are the probabilities.

When was it made?

What does it look like?

What does it feel like?

Does it smell?

What signs of deterioration can you see?

What marks are on it?

When was it made?

If you have an idea when the object was made, use the information under the relevant date span to narrow down the probabilities. Bear in mind though what you are getting are probabilities not certainties. Many plastics have had long periods of gestation and, as more and more plastics are invented, some become outmoded but nonetheless stay in production. And, although some materials are used most often with a particular manufacturing process, they may also be used from time to time with another. If you have a hunch that an object is made of a particular material outside the dates given or manufactured in a different process go to the material or process in the A – Z guides to check out what is possible in greater detail.








1840 -1880

Materials Manufacturing processes

Bois durci Compression moulding

Celluloid (see cellulose nitrate) Compression moulding, fabrication

Gutta percha Compression moulding, extrusion

Parkesine (see cellulose nitrate) Compression moulding, fabrication

Shellac Compression moulding

Vulcanite Compression moulding

1880 -1915

Materials Manufacturing processes

Cellulose nitrate Blow moulding, fabrication, thermoforming

Shellac Compression moulding

Vulcanised rubber Compression moulding, fabrication, turning

1915 -1925

Materials Manufacturing processes

Casein formaldehyde Fabrication, extrusion

Cellulose nitrate Blow moulding, fabrication, thermoforming

Phenol formaldehyde Compression moulding; casting

Shellac Compression moulding

Vulcanite Compression moulding, fabrication, turning

1925 -1940

Materials Manufacturing processes

Casein Extrusion, fabrication, thermoforming

Cellulose acetate Compression moulding, fabrication, injection moulding

Cellulose nitrate Blow moulding, fabrication, thermoforming

Phenol formaldehyde Compression moulding; casting

Urea formaldehyde Compression moulding

Shellac Compression moulding

1940 -1950

Materials Manufacturing processes

Cellulose acetate Fabrication, injection moulding

Phenol formaldehyde Compression moulding; casting

Polyamides Casting, extrusion, injection moulding

Polymethyl methacrylate Casting, extrusion, fabrication, thermoforming

Polythene extrusion, blow moulding, injection moulding

Urea formaldehyde Compression moulding

1950 -1965

Materials Manufacturing processes

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene Injection moulding

Glass reinforced plastic Compression moulding, fabrication,

Melamine formaldehyde Compression moulding

Phenol formaldehyde Compression moulding

Polyamides Casting, extrusion, injection moulding

Polymethyl methacrylate Casting, extrusion, fabrication, injection moulding, thermoforming

Polypropylene Blow moulding, injection moulding, casting

Polystyrene Extrusion, foaming, injection moulding

Polythene Extrusion, blow moulding, rotational moulding

Polyurethane Blow moulding, extrusion, injection moulding, foaming

Polyvinyl chloride Blow moulding, extrusion, injection moulding, foaming, rotational moulding

Silicones Injection moulding

1965 onwards

Materials Manufacturing processes

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene Injection moulding

Glass reinforced plastic Compression moulding, hand lay-up, fabrication, pultrusion, vacuum laminated

Polyamides Casting, extrusion, injection moulding

Polycarbonate Blow and injection moulding, extrusion, foaming

Polythene Blow moulding, extrusion, injection moulding, rotational moulding

Polypropylene Blow and injection moulding, casting (film)

Polyethylene terephthalate Blow moulding, extrusion, injection moulding

Polymethyl methacrylate Casting, extrusion, fabrication, injection moulding, thermoforming

Polystyrene Extrusion, foaming, injection moulding

Polyurethane Blow moulding, extrusion, foaming, injection moulding

Polyvinyl chloride Blow moulding, extrusion, injection moulding, foaming, rotational moulding

Silicones Injection moulding

What does it look like?

Transparent ?

Pale or bright coloured?

Amber, ivory, tortoiseshell or pearlised?



Relatively few plastics are transparent like glass. All transparent plastics can be made translucent or opaque by the addition of pigments or fillers. Some plastics are only transparent in sheet form. If it is moulded and transparent it is probably made of one of the following:

Phenol formaldehyde as liquid resin not with filler



Polyethylene terephthalate

Polymethyl methacrylate


The following plastics can also be clear in sheet or film form but are translucent or opaque when injection-moulded:

Cellulose acetate



Is it translucent? If so, it can be any of the above and also:



Pale or bright coloured

If so it is unlikely to be made of one of the following as they usually come in dark colours. However plastics that can be light or bright in colour also come in dark colours.

Bois durci

Gutta percha

Vulcanised rubber


Phenol formaldehyde as liquid resin not with filler


Amber, ivory, tortoiseshell, or pearlised

If it imitates one of these it is likely to be made of one of the following:

Casein formaldehyde

Cellulose acetate

Cellulose nitrate

Phenol formaldehyde as liquid resin not with filler


If it has a hard glossy surface it is likely to be one of the following but bear in mind that nowadays almost any plastic can be made glossy:

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)

Casein formaldehyde

Melamine formaldehyde

Phenol formaldehyde


Polymethyl methacrylate


What does it feel like?


Flexible or rigid?



Some plastics have such a soft surface that they can be indented with a finger nail. If the object feels as if that is likely it is probably made from one of the following:



Polyvinyl chloride (when in flexible form)


Flexible or rigid

Many plastics can be rigid or flexible however a few are always rigid. These are:

Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS)

Bois durci

Gutta percha

Phenol formaldehyde



Stickiness is a sign of degradation. The following can go sticky:

Cellulose acetate

Cellulose nitrate

Polyvinyl chloride

Polyurethane foam

Does it smell?

The following smells are sometimes given off by the plastics listed:

Carbolic acid: phenol formaldehyde

Formaldehyde: casein formaldehyde

Milky, if rubbed casein formaldehyde

Mothballs (camphor): cellulose nitrate

Plasticky (new car smell) polyvinyl chloride

Sweet: polyvinyl chloride but only when degrading

Sulphurous: hard rubber

Vinegar: cellulose acetate

Vomit /rancid butter: cellulose butyrate, cellulose acetate butyrate

Waxy: polythene

What signs of deterioration can you see?

The following signs of deterioration are associated with the materials listed:


This takes the form of a white powder that can be wiped off or a pale mistiness.

Cellulose acetate

Cellulose nitrate

Polyvinyl chloride

Cracks and splits

Casein formaldehyde

Cellulose nitrate

Phenol formaldehyde



Polyvinyl chloride


Urea formaldehyde


Casein formaldehyde (surface crazing)

Cellulose nitrate (internal crazing)

Gutta percha (network of small cracks on surface)

Polymethyl methacrylate


Urea formaldehyde (an orange peel effect)


Gutta percha

Polyurethane foam


Polyvinyl chloride

Fading and discolouration

Pigments can fade independently, leading to complete changes of colour.

Phenol formaldehyde, also dulls

Polyamide, tendency to yellow

Polymethyl methacrylate, sometimes discolours in light

Polyvinyl chloride: yellows and goes brown

Polyurethane: yellows

Urea formaldehyde, also dulls

Vulcanite, often has a yellowish brown tinge

Physical distortion, warping

Cellulose acetate

What marks are on it?

A small bird’s wing was used to indicate the use of the material bois durci

An infinity sign is the logo of Bakelite and thus frequently indicates the material phenol formaldehyde but the company made many other plastic materials. It only appears on Bakelite promotional mouldings. Bakelite did not make mouldings for the general market.

Recycling triangles were introduced in 1988 so any object with these on must date from

that year or later.

Smooth circular marks are a sign of the use of ejector pins to push the moulding from the mould and thus of injection moulding.

An imperfection on an otherwise smooth surface may be a residue left at the spot the material has been forced into the mould and thus indicate the use of injection moulding. Such marks can be extremely hard to detect and they may not be where you might expect to find them, for example centrally placed on the base or on the edge. They can be polished off so their absence does not tell you anything.

The following are trade names that frequently appear on mouldings. They are associated with the materials indicated:

Bandalasta Thiourea-urea formaldehyde

Beetleware Urea formaldehyde

Carvacraft Phenol formaldehyde

Gaydon Melamine formaldehyde

Linga Longa Urea formaldehyde

Melaware Melamine formaldehyde

Melmex Melamine formaldehyde

Xylonite Cellulose nitrate

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Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual icon5. Scanning Tunneling Microscopy Lab Suzanne Amador Kane 3/13/06 (parts of this manual were adapted from the Burleigh Instruments istm manual, and the Physics 407 Lab manual from University of Wisconsin) Introduction

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconWy, it's just ez clear ez Aggers, Clear ez one an' one make two, Chaps thet make black slaves o' niggers, Want to make wite slaves o' you

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconDivision 06 – wood, plastics, and composites 55

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconGentech engineering plastics cc applicant

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconPlastics and the Environment. Hoboken. N. J. Wiley-Interscience. Ashley, S. 2002

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconPlastics and the Environment. New York: Wiley-Interscience. Atlas, Ronald M. 1995

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconA study Manual On

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconParticipant’s Manual

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconA Make sure that you know how to pronounce the following words, consult the

Make the most of your plastics: an e-manual iconStudent Organization Manual

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