When you think of the world of antiques and collectibles, plastic is not a material or medium that often comes to mind. But plastic became very popular from the 1900s on with the inventions of celluloid, bakelite, and lucite. These three different plastics with slightly varying characteristics became popular in the form of jewellery, cutlery, dinnerware, and radios.
What’s exciting about vintage plastic is that practically everyone has an item origin tucked away in a drawer or jewellery box somewhere. So now would be a good time to check, because vintage plastic is highly collectible. This is what you’re looking for:
Though celluloid was first invented in 1850s, it wasn’t until the 1900s that it became really popular in costume jewellery design, particularly during the Art Deco period. An easy material to work with, celluloid could be sculpted or molded into any shape, and produced in almost any colour. It was widely used in jewellery to mimic ivory and tortoise shell.
Celluloid was used in many applications, including film - a practice long abandoned for its highly flammable nature. But in the day, you could find celluloid dolls, hair accessories, toys, dice, pens, buttons, and spectacle frames. Today, celluloid is used to make ping pong balls and guitar picks.
Probably one of the most popular plastics to collect, Bakelite was the 1909 invention of Dr. Leo Baekeland, a Belgian-American chemist from New York. Primarily used as a heat-resistant plastic in electronic components, Bakelite really took off in the domestic realm and was used widely in kitchenware, jewellery, radios, telephones, pipe stems, and toys. It comes in black, brown, red, yellow, green, gray, blue, or a combination of these as seen in the classic Bakelite bowtie bangle. This item fetched $1,750 at auction about five years ago at Bonhams.
If you have any Bakelite, take care how you store it. Colours can darken with prolonged exposure, and whites often turn cream with age. It’s also easily scratched and over time, will develop a patina effect. Bakelite can transparent, opaque, or translucent, and is much heavier than lucite or celluloid.
More commonly known as Perspex or Plexiglas, lucite is a transparent, solid plastic made of polymethyl methacrylate. In 1937 DuPont created this plastic from resin as an inexpensive substitute for glass, but its popularity grew through the 1940s and 50s as did its many uses.
The most collectible item in lucite today has to be the handbags. These beautiful works of art come in all different shapes and colours and make a great conversation piece. This Gilli Confetti Lucite Handbag sold for $244 in 2015. At that price, anybody could start collecting these highly sought-after pieces.
The other great plastic that’s been around long enough to call itself ‘vintage’ is of course, Tupperware. Not only did Tupperware start a whole community of collectors, but it was one of the first to follow the multi-level marketing model of selling.
Tupperware parties were all the rage back in the day, at a time when women were mostly housebound, and was a great way to get out of the house, make some money, and add to your very own Tupperware collection.
It was a revolution of its very own kind, one that was started by Earl Tupper and his business partner Brownie Wise. Thanks to her magnificent idea of throwing Tupperware parties to sell his storage containers, Tupper took his struggling business and turned into an empire, as well as a household name.
Now vintage Tupperware has made its way into the Hague Museum in the Netherlands thanks to an avid collector by the name of Monique Hageman. You’ll recognize the pastel pinks and blues and yellows of the 60s, along with the pumpkin orange, yellow, and pea green tones of the 70s, the Hageman collection has them all and more. Inspired by the Tupperware story, she started collecting the food containers out of nostalgia, and a love for the design and function.
Just another affordable way to start collecting or auctioning off your plastic collectibles.