Due to the evolution of plastic as a technology, the scaffolding of our day-to-day lives is cloaked in an infinite array of polymers. However, the story of plastics within history largely remains untold and unseen. People often furrow their brows in confusion upon hearing the phrase historical plastics. Yet, plastics are historical because they can be traced back in time to almost two hundred years amidst experimental origins achieved through significant innovation. Distinctive, enigmatic, moldable qualities and all: historical plastics remind us that plastic as a material has been present in our global society longer than frequently thought.
The Plastics Artifacts Collection includes images of over 3,000 historical plastic objects found within SCRC’s archival collection. This digital collection is a tool for researching the development of the plastics industry’s growth through rapid shifts in chemical composition and manufacturing spanning the past 175 years. Originally accumulated by the National Plastics Center and Museum (NPCM) in Leominster, Massachusetts, and transferred to Syracuse University Libraries when the museum closed in 2008, the Plastics Artifacts Collectionholds a vibrant spectrum of historical plastic objects such as personal items like combs and jewelry, home and kitchenware, medical devices and parts, automotive components, material samples, military gear and equipment, and more. Discover the breadth of plastics from that of the 'natural', namely horn, ivory, tortoiseshell, and rubber, to that of the 'synthetic', such as Celluloid, Bakelite, Bandalasta, Catalin, Melamine and more. Learn about plastics from the perspective of the workers and molders, the designers, and the corporations who marketed them. See evidence of how people lived across time through material culture with these objects. The images also supplement the numerous manuscript collections relating to organizations and individuals who played a significant role in the development and manufacture of plastic products in the United States.
Amidst the infinite characteristics of plastics—they can be colorful, moldable, bendable, beautiful, harmful, infinitesimal—are also complexities. Global society has been both uplifted and harmed through the invention of plastics and as a material, plastic is not exempt from reflecting the biases rooted within the culture from which it was molded. While many of the objects within this collection demonstrate the possibilities of plastics through development, design, and industry, many artifacts also reflect harmful historical attitudes of the past rooted within racism and systems of oppression. Plastics are materials in their own right, engineered with their own particular qualities, and they offer potentials for research through providing evidence of the not so distant past.