Celluloid: Identifying the collectable antique plastic

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Late 1800s celluloid advertising pin with lithograph graphics

antique faux-ivory celluloid brushes

antique faux-ivory celluloid brushes

As with today, in the late 1800s and early 1900s plastics were used to make a plethora of products, from jewelry and toys to electrical fixtures and plumbing parts. With many of today’s antique collectors, certain  early plastics are in vogue and sought after, in particular when in the form of eye-appealing items like art deco jewelry, advertising pins and old timey radios.

This post is a quick look at one of the popular forms of antique plastic, named celluloid. 

Celluloid is the trade name for a plastic that was widely used in the 1800s and early 1900s to make pins, fountain pens, buttons, toys, dolls, figures and many other products. It was commonly used as an ivory substitute, to make cheaper version of items with ivory such as toiletry boxes, billiard balls, handles and backings for hand mirrors, combs and brush handles. If you ever see the name ‘French ivory’ or ‘Ivorine,’ that is faux-ivory celluloid. Though widely used in its day, drawbacks to celluloid included that it was flammable, fragile and deteriorated with time. Due to the common decomposition, antique celuloid in top condition is prized today.

Identifying celluloid: Celluloid tends to be much thinner and lighter than other period plastics. You can often see right through the plastic when held up to a bright light, even if it’s dyed. The easy and reliable test for celluloid is to place it under hot water for a few seconds, then smells it. If it smells like camphor it’s probably celluloid.

Interesting celluloid fact: Anne Frank wrote much of her diary with her favorite celluloid pen that was given to her on her 13th birthday. In her diary, she wrote a memorial to the pen after it was destroyed in a small fire in the compound in which she and her family were hiding.

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Purchase a copy of Identifying Common Materials in Antiques: A Pocket Guide

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