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How we learned to stop worrying and love plastics: an interview with Jeffrey Meikle

By Allison Xantha Miller | Issue #24

"Just one word: plastics."

In 1959, Life and other media publicized fears of "the latest household peril"--suffocation from plastic dry cleaning bags.

This single line from the 1967 film The Graduate came to signify a generation's contempt for insincerity, conformity, and wastefulness. Just as the sixties were bad for the Establishment, they were also bad for plastic. In his column in Esquire magazine and in books like The Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer fulminated against synthetic materials that clogged daily life, associating them with cancer, cultural infantilism, even Nazi death camps.

The production of plastics began its sudden gallop after World War II--it would overtake the production of steel in 1979--so people in the 1960s often associated plastics with newness and modernism. But by the time Mailer was writing, plastics had actually been around for a century. The first plastic, celluloid, was synthesized from nitrated cotton fiber and camphor in 1869, to make a cheaper substitute for ivory billiard balls. Beginning in the 1920s, the plastics industry tried to shape the way consumers thought of the materials, through advertising, high-tech displays at world's fairs and trade shows, and Tupperware parties. Plastics were often heralded as the key to an incipient consumer utopia of affordable goods, the triumph of science over nature, even the liberation of the American housewife, who need only wipe a formica counter with a damp cloth to clean it. So how did the industry react when the counterculture of the 1960s came to use its own rhetoric against it?

Stay Free! talked about the history of plastics with Jeffrey L. Meikle, professor of American studies and art history at the University of Texas and author of American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers University Press, 1995). He pointed out that the roots of the backlash against plastics actually ran deeper than the 1960s, and that the industry often struggled to live up to its own hype.

STAY FREE!: You write that starting in the 1930s, the plastics industry tried to project an image of plastics as miracle materials. Can you discuss how the industry came to emphasize innovation as a selling point?

MEIKLE: Celluloid was the first real plastic. It was invented in 1869. By the 1880s and '90s manufacturers knew how to make it look like other materials, such as ivory and tortoise shell, so they used celluloid for a number of things, especially combs and small bowls for dressing tables. There were also celluloid collars to replace men's detachable starched linen collars, and they looked like the real thing. So for decades plastic imitated something else. Yet when you look at some of the imitation tortoise shell or imitation ivory, it almost seems that there's a kind of extravagance to the material. It's not just trying to disguise itself, it's also kind of proclaiming, "look how clever we are, look what modern science can do." So the issue becomes how and when do the people who make things out of plastic decide to give up imitating other materials and instead trumpet plastics as something magical, something unprecedented. Sometimes a biblical phrase was used: "something new under the sun." Manufacturers had to get the public to accept this stuff that looked unearthly. And all of a sudden, that becomes a virtue. That happens in the late '20s or early '30s.

STAY FREE!: With the introduction of Bakelite, which was used for ra-dio casings.

MEIKLE: With Bakelite, yes. Celluloid had some of the same disadvantages of tortoise shell: it had to be shaped by hand; it could be warped in heat, and so on. But Bakelite was molded, and it seemed almost indestructible. It was naturally an amber color, verging on black. It didn't really look like anything that existed naturally. When it came out of the mold it was sleek and shiny, with this reflective quality that we might think of as similar to chrome, a kind of sheen that no natural material had. So it was very easy to take something that might have seemed like a flaw and turn it into a strength--to say this stuff is the epitome of the Machine Age.

Some of the utopianism of plastics in the '30s and '40s came from the presumption that it was possible to make plastics almost out of nothing. For example, the major raw material of Bakelite is coal tar, which was a waste product from the making of coke from coal. The coal tar would have just been dumped in the river. So plastics seemed to be free; they were coming from waste materials. There was this sense of getting something for nothing.

Henry Ford believed that ultimately cars would be made not out of steel but out of plastic, and that the plastic would come from soybeans grown by American farmers. Throughout his career Ford had a special interest in the American farmer. He didn't really see the Model T as the cornerstone of an urban transportation system, he saw it primarily as a boon for farmers, to modernize their life. Ford was thinking about and experimenting with making plastic from soybeans. He had a vision that all of the elements used in making the car could come from agriculture. And, in fact, he made an all-plastic experimental car right before World War II. He had plans to put it into production, but the war intervened. So in an odd sort of way, his idea connected new materials to very traditional ways of living, and therefore made them seem more natural or acceptable.

STAY FREE!: You point out that "plastics" as a category didn't even exist until the 1920s, 40 years or so after they'd started being manufactured.

MEIKLE: Right, the word was adopted slowly, first by the industry and then by the public. The trade journal Plastics started publishing in 1925, and I think that was the first sign that people in the industry realized they were all producing the same sort of thing. Originally, plastic just meant something that could be molded, but lots of things could be molded, even papier-mâché. The general public didn't start using the word plastics until the mid- to late '30s. So there were all these new materials appearing that the public had no name for. I think getting people to think of this stuff as plastics and as miracle materials was a move on the part of the industry to promote their popularity. Even though they're chemically quite different from one another, thinking of them all as plastics was a way of getting people used to them.

STAY FREE!: So did the industry's emphasis on the uniqueness and innovative qualities of plastic play into the backlash against it in the late 1950s and '60s?

MEIKLE: Actually, I think the backlash really goes back to World War II, when plastics of all sorts were required for the war effort. On the home front, there were a lot of new plastics being used in areas where they hadn't been used before. There were also second- or third-rate materials that had been rejected by the military that were used for the civilian market. In the lore of the industry, there are stories about plastic combs that would melt when they touched certain brands of hair oil, or plastic buttons on coats that would disintegrate or deform when you sent them to the cleaners. People would make very cheap mixing bowls out of laminated plastic, which were several layers of paper soaked in liquid plastic resin, then pressed under extreme heat and pressure into the form of a bowl--that's still the way plastic laminate is made today. To save money, they used very little resin. In other words, it was cardboard held together with a little bit of plastic. The layers would splinter apart, and the thing would shatter if you dropped it. And this was the new miracle material? After World War II, in the late 1940s, there were tales of the first polyvinyl chloride (PVC) raincoats: when they got wet, the arms would fall off, they gave off gas and stank, they were kind of viscous and slimy. Manufacturers themselves didn't understand how to use this stuff. So the general public began to get an impression of plastics as cheap and shoddy partially because they didn't live up to the utopian rhetoric that had been used to push them in the late '30s and up through the '60s. When I was a child in the late '50s, all the brittle polystyrene toys were stomped on and broken by 10 o'clock Christmas morning. I think that for my generation, the baby boomers, the whole notion of plastic as something shoddy might stem from those toys.

STAY FREE!: Do you know if workers in plastics plants ever felt that they were creating modern miracle materials?

MEIKLE: I don't have any way to factually answer that question, but my guess is that they did not. [Laughs] Plastics factories were pretty dirty, grimy, industrial places. They had nothing of the kind of pristine, unearthly, smooth quality that the material itself had. They were real factories.

STAY FREE!: So no one in lab coats running around.

MEIKLE: No, no, no! [Laughs]

STAY FREE!: Although nylon isn't plastic, it was also hailed as a miracle material in the World War II era. There were reports in the press that Du Pont was making amazing new stockings that would never run. Did the company let these false rumors fester to make their forthcoming product all the more enticing to people?

MEIKLE: The director of research of Du Pont, Charles Stine, announced the development of nylons in 1938 at a large meeting of hundreds of people from women's clubs who converged on the site of the New York World's Fair before it opened. There were lots of reporters there. And Stine made this announcement projecting stockings with fibers "as strong as steel, as fine as a spider's web." I think he meant that as typical hyperbole, a nice ringing phrase to promote a new product. But it immediately got twisted out of shape. You had reporters saying that Du Pont claims this new material will withstand blowtorches. Women expected stockings that literally could not snag or run. And Du Pont I think had to figure out how to live that down. They almost immediately tried to shift into a kind of damage control and back off from that claim. But it was a good way to stir up PR for nylons and keep them in hot demand when they came out.

STAY FREE!: Let's shift to what happened after the war, when the manufacture of plastic products for ordinary consumers really took off. You link postwar plastics production to something you call the inflationary culture. Can you explain a little bit more about that?

MEIKLE: By inflationary culture, I'm referring to what other people have called "the democratization of things." Throughout the 20th century in the United States, one sees an increasing presence of more and more varied stuff inexpensive enough to be consumed by an ever-increasing percentage of the population. You have to remember that the vast majority of Americans in the depression lived from hand to mouth. And then, although the economy improved during World War II, there were very few products available on the home front because everything was going to the war effort. So you had 15 years of repressed desire for goods. And after World War II, the economy expanded and ordinary people could afford far more things than they ever could have. There was an explosion of products that had never existed before. It's my belief that part of that expansion was due to the introduction of plastics. Because it was cheaper to manufacture things from plastic than from steel or brass. It was cheaper to mold a radio case than to assemble it from wood.

STAY FREE!: You also point out that manufacturers saved money on shipping because plastic was so much lighter than other materials.

MEIKLE: Yes. So there's this period, the '50s and '60s, when people's lives and houses are just filling up with things. There's so much of it that none of it means as much as it used to. Because it's cheap, it's more disposable. This isn't necessarily planned obsolescence: if things don't cost much in the first place, then you don't feel bad if they break and you get rid of them, or if the style changes and you want something else. You can just buy more of them. Why have only three mixing bowls when you can have fifteen? Of course, as you amass more things, each individual thing means less and less.

STAY FREE!: And that's the inflation. The value declines because there's too much stuff.

MEIKLE: By value, I'm really talking about personal value or psychological value--the personal significance of the things you own. Something made out of metal or wood tends to wear and show its age. It acquires a certain patina; the marks of time are on it. We value it all the more because of that. But with plastics, they were always promoted as being very precise, pristine, fresh out of the molds. There's nothing romantic about a piece of stained or cracked or scratched plastic. It's just dirty and needs to be thrown out. Plastic should look perpetually new.

ABOVE: Plastics from cotton? The industry didn't always show plastics futuristically. In some cases, like this 1939 ad from Monsanto, it reassuringly tied plastics to nostalgia for America's agricultural heritage and for a racial order in which African-Americans worked on farms in the South. The ad speaks condescendingly of mysterious processes that "create new materials from nature's crops," juxtaposing its knowingness with the innocence and ignorance of children cavorting in the soft white piles.

STAY FREE!: What about the harmful effects of plastic? When did the fear of toxicity and environmental damage come about?

MEIKLE: Well, there was the whole plastic bag controversy in 1959. That year, about 80 infants and young children were suffocated by polyethylene dry-cleaning bags, which were introduced in 1956. There was a nationwide panic about the horror of these dry cleaning bags. But the real fear of plastics as possibly toxic didn't reach the public until the '60s and '70s, with the environmental movement. In the early '70s there was the realization that the vinyl chloride monomer was giving a lot of processors a rare form of liver cancer. Some investigators are now saying that the chemical companies knew this long before they claim to have found out. There are going to be a lot of claims that in fact they covered it up. In the '60s there was also the fear of things like Teflon--what happens to the Teflon that gets burned off or scraped off your pan? I certainly feared it. After I first got married, someone gave my wife and me a Teflon cook set. But after a few months the Teflon started to disappear from the pan! It made you wonder, where did this stuff go, and what is it doing to me? I think the scientific word until now has been that it's inert: if you swallow it, it just goes through your system. But I also read recently that those pans may have been poisoning all of us for the last forty years and in fact Du Pont may have known about it. I don't know what the truth is, but I think we're going to hear a lot more about it.

STAY FREE!: What impact did that have on the value of plastics in the market or on stocks in chemical companies?

MEIKLE: As far as I know, none whatsoever. But the industry was really paranoid about it. They feared that the whole industry might be legislated out of existence.

STAY FREE!: On the other hand, plastics played a role in the utopianism of the counterculture: Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes and attempts to make disposable housing. It's so funny to me to think about plastics being part of a countercultural vision.

MEIKLE: It was one part of the counterculture, sort of a high-tech component. The vision was of being completely cut free from the materialism of American society. And while you might think of plastic as being a component of that materialism, with these other uses of plastics, like geodesic domes, inflatable houses, or rounded domes of PVC, you could just blow them up, live in them, and then deflate them and move them someplace else. That's sort of the ultimate experience of living without any possessions at all.

STAY FREE!: Can I get you to just sum up where plastic is now?

MEIKLE: I think that plastic, if we can use that word to encompass very different materials, is now accepted. Today, we don't even think of some things, especially high-performance plastics like Gore-Tex or Kevlar, as plastic, because they outperform our notions of what plastic is. And it is also true, literally true, that nothing like this stuff has ever existed before. It's enabling us, finally, to do things that could never be done before. Really the whole story I was tracing in my book is the issue of how a new substance comes into being, how it gains the attention of manufacturers, how it gains the attention of the public, and how the public reacts to it. Whether you liked it or not, it was something unfamiliar. Plastic now of course is completely familiar. I find that my students have never heard the word plastic used to mean fake or phony.

STAY FREE!: Really?!? I feel old now.

MEIKLE: Nobody would slam wood or steel as a material, right? They do the jobs we think they should. The same with plastics. We simply accept them. They're part of the environment. In a way the utopian vision of miracle materials has finally arrived, but no one really cares anymore.