By Gordon Bock
From a practical oddity in the 1860s, to the immortal punchline of the movie The Graduate in the 1960s, plastics have embodied the ever-changing shape and potential of man-made materials for over a century. They were able to assume myriad colors, countless shapes, and unheard-of functions that quickly exceeded any parallels in nature. Today it’s useful to take stock of plastics’ impact on houses, now that the futuristic laminates, phenolics, and acrylics of the post-World-War II building-boom years have become the historic materials of tomorrow.
The term plastic stems from the Greek word for moldable and originally described a material that was shaped by hand—that is, something pliable in contrast to something that must be carved or chiseled. By the 1930s, plastic was being applied to an increasingly diverse family of innovative, modern materials that were soft and easily molded at some point in their creation, making them capable of being cut, extruded, molded, or otherwise worked into a tremendous variety of shapes and forms.
Though the origins of modern plastics are humble, since the 1930s early inventors have been all but canonized—even during their lifetimes—and their discoveries now have the aura of legends. Classic is the tale of John Wesley Hyatt, a printer from Rochester, New York, who read an advertisement offering $10,000—a huge sum in the 1850s—to anyone who could devise a new substance for the manufacture of billiard balls. Ivory, the raw material up till then, was in short supply and becoming expensive, so Hyatt was intrigued by the challenge of finding a substitute. After many months of experiments that included dangerous combinations of newspaper pulp, nitric acid, and camphor, Hyatt closed in on a mixture that could be solidified by a chemical, then shaped in a press. The result was celluloid, the original thermoplastic (heat-softened) resin that, besides billiard balls, made possible the first photographic film and, after 1900, early auto safety glass. As late as the 1940s celluloid was widely used for making toothbrushes, combs, and hundreds of other objects that would not come in contact with heat.
Next in the plastics pantheon, but by no means second, is Leo H. Baekeland, a brilliant Belgian chemist. After coming to America and making a fortune in the photographic industry by 1900, Baekeland set out to synthesize a material that could be formed with heat and pressure like glass. It was known that mixtures of carbolic acid and formaldehyde would yield a bubbly, brown goo that solidified into a porous mass. By controlling the reaction in a pressurized chamber, Baekeland perfected a process for turning the chemicals into the practical equivalent of amber.
This new resin—named Bakelite—was moldable, machinable, incombustible, electrically nonconductive, and instantly ideal for the new aircraft and electrical industries. After World War I, Bakelite’s use in consumer products exploded, appearing in seemingly everything from radio parts to varnishes on brass beds. Combined with refined wood cellulose, the thermosetting (heat-hardened) resin could be cast into knobs and handles resilient enough to take years of manipulation. By saturating cloth, it was easily formed into tough sheets that shrugged off impact and wear in applications from electrical circuit boards to kick plates.
The Plastics Parade
Celluloid and Bakelite were the two seeds of the ever-growing branches of plastics devised since then. Though celluloid (cellulose nitrate) found limited use in building construction per se, its less flammable cousin, cellulose acetate, became popular for doorknobs and telephones where it was valued for its integral color that would not wear away. The birth of acrylic resins in the 1930s led to some of the first uses of plastics in directly architectural ways. Developed in Germany for aircraft windshields, acrylics are heat-softening resins that possess the additional quality of being crystal clear.
Almost synonymous today with two of their earliest trade names—Lucite and Plexiglas—acrylics became a quick favorite of designers for lighting. Since sheets or tubes of acrylic conduct light and are readily bent, the plastic could be used to illuminate creative shapes or transmit light around curves.
Early on, acrylics were employed for novel signs where letters and designs molded or engraved into one side of the plastic seem to shine on their own when lit from above. Though some furniture was tried—particularly tabletops—early acrylics were soft and easily scratched, so they worked best in out-of-the-way locations like door lintels, room moldings, and edge-lighted screens. Lightweight and easily shaped, baluster-sheets of decorated acrylics made a dramatic, transparent addition to stair railings.
Styrene, another clear, heat-softened plastic of the early 1930s, saw most initial architectural use in insulation, while vinyl, which came on the market shortly thereafter, found an immediate application as decorative sheet flooring. Urea plastics, made with urea and formaldehyde, lent themselves well to molding, and with their hard, shiny surfaces became popular for lighting and electrical fixtures, reflectors, door knobs, and switch plates.
The ability of many of the first plastics to readily bond with other materials was soon put to work in the production of laminates, and both heat-softening and heat-hardening plastics were turned to making these industrial sandwiches. Akin to how cellulose nitrate had become the inner layer of the first safety glass, in the 1930s sheets of cellulose acetate were pressed onto either side of strips of rare wood veneers to make Parkwood—a product that surfaced high-design columns, bars, and staterooms.
More versatile were heat-hardening plastics like Bakelite and its phenolic descendants that could be used to impregnate fibrous sheets or textiles. In fact, Leo Baekeland’s General Bakelite Company supplied his resin to many manufacturers, such as the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, which combined it with canvas to make electrical equipment.
At Westinghouse, two young engineers—Daniel J. O’Conor and Herbert A. Faber—perfected a process to make very thin sheets of laminate that were more practical electrical insulators than the flakes of natural mica used at the time. When their employer showed little interest, they formed the Formica Insulation Company of Cincinnati in 1913 to produce their man-made substitute “for mica.” Over the next decade O’Conor and Faber continued to refine and grow their new material into mechanical products like gears. They realized it might reach new markets—if they could add color.
After experiments with lithographed wood sheets, the company patented the first all-paper-based laminate in 1931—in a stroke re-creating Formica as a decorative material. By topping several resin-and-paper layers with a sheet printed in an attractive, colorful pattern, the laminate quickly became an ideal surface for counters and tabletops, as well as avant-garde wall panels in public spaces. Following service in the aircraft industry during World War II, Formica became nearly ubiquitous in houses and commercial spaces alike during the building boom of the 1950s.
Plastics really came into their own in houses in the mid-20th century, propelled by the dual engines of pent-up, postwar demand and the proliferation of plastic types. In the 1950s plastics of all sorts moved beyond the industrial recesses of consumer goods to become finished, highly decorative products in their own right. New ideas for existing plastics proliferated, begetting venerable trade names like Wilsonart International in laminates and Kentile in flooring, along with new combinations, such as fiber reinforced plastics—commonly called fiberglass. By the 1960s, the reference Plastics for Architects and Builders could list over 70 generic uses for plastics in construction.
Taken to its logical limit, such endless versatility leads to the notion of creating a house entirely out of plastic and, indeed, such buildings have broken the building mold more than once. Most iconic today is the “Plastics Home of the Future” constructed at Disneyland in 1957 by the Monsanto Chemical Company. Designed by architect Marvin Goody and his associates. Intended as “A demonstration of the structural applications of plastics. It dazzled atomic-age visitors with molded-in lavatories and tubs; plastic-foam insulation and furniture padding; and acrylic curtains, carpets, and upholstery.” Rooms may be easily and economically added or removed to conform with the changing space requirements of the residents,” highlighted a 1960 brochure—a fitting metaphor for the ever-changing role of plastics themselves in houses.Published in: Old-House Journal March/April 2005