Plastics in the Collection
Find out more about the plastic in Stevenage Museum's collection. Part of a #PlasticFreeJuly series
A quick search of ‘plastic’ on our object database turns up 603 records which includes a massive range of object types from furniture to Gramophone records, homeware to hairpins, and everything in between!
Plastic began to be produced at the Second World War, and then more widely during the 1960s and 70s when a desire for versatile, cheap, and sanitary materials grew. However, plastic has a much older history! The first semi-synthetic plastic was invented by Alexander Parkes in 1855 and was known as Parkesine and is generally seen as the first step towards the domination of plastic.
Later, a Belgian chemist, Leo Baekeland, brought the first fully synthetic plastic to the public in 1907. The museum has 67 objects recorded as being made of Bakelite, such as a Murphy Baffle Set receiver (1975.10), a telephone handset (1980.48) and Christmas tree lights with Bakelite bulb sockets (1987.102)
1975.10 - Murphy Baffle Set receiver
1980.48 - Bakelite telephone handset
1987.102 - Christmas tree lights
Perspex came next in 1932 from the British company, Imperial Chemical Industries. The next year, a failed experiment led to the development of polyethylene! You've probably heard of both of these types of plastic, and we make good use of Perspex at the museum for framing, mounting, and displaying our objects.
1987.84 - Perspex ESA sign
2008.4.103 - Food storage containers
1990.48 - Tupperware
Not long after, US company DuPont invented plastics such as Nylon and Teflon – both also household names! After the Second World War, plastics replaced single-use items, such as paper, glass and metal packaging on consumer products. It was cheaper and more durable than its predecessors.
1980.22 - Plastic shopping bag issued by C&A (department store)
The plastic bottle, as we know it today, was invented by Nathaniel Wyeth in 1973 as a lightweight and durable alternative to glass bottles. Its dominance has lasted, leading to a single-use culture that is hard to shift.
2017.23 - Plastic bottle of 'Swift' Carpet Shampoo, used by the donor in Pound Avenue in the 1970s.
We are becoming more aware of the issues surrounding single use plastic – what changes can you make this July to change the historical impacts of plastics?