These casein plastic products were made in 1933. Made from milk protein and formaldehyde and easily pigmented, casein was patented in Germany in 1899. It was one of several semi-synthetic plastics that initiated the plastics age in the nineteenth century.
Plastics have been described as "materials that can be moulded or shaped into different forms under pressure or heat." They were a cultural phenomenon in the twentieth century when they changed the way objects were produced, designed and used. It was also in the twentieth century that most plastic products moved away from natural raw materials to synthetically produced ones.
The museum's plastics collection began in the 1930s with the acquisition of specimens of plastic raw materials and finished products. The collection was driven largely by Arthur de Ramon Penfold (1890-1980), a former industrial chemist, who worked as curator and later director of the museum from 1927 until 1955.
Between 26 and 28 of September 1934, the Technical College and the museum collaborated to develop what was advocated as the first Plastics Industry Exhibition in Australia. A permanent display of plastics was established at the museum, and was described by the Sunday Telegraph as 'the best display of plastics and fibres in the world show(ing) the complete history of plastics from first experiments to the latest developments'.
Casein plastics are made from a protein found predominantly in milk, and mixed with a formaldehyde to produce a plastic that was easily dyed into a variety of colours. Due to its extensive colour range, casein was popular for small, decorative, and functional objects, and was used extensively in the button trade. The use of casein, in plastics, is now almost obsolete due to more advanced plastics technology, and rise in the demand of dairy products for human consumption.
These sample boards display casein materials and products that were exhibited in the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in the 1930s.
This object is part of a large collection of plastics and plastic moulding powders acquired by the museum during Arthur Penfold's career. This collection gives an insight into a period of great social, material, technological and scientific development as well as the collecting practices of the museum at the time. Plastics continues to be an area that is explored and represented in the museum's collection, however today it reflects some of the more ambivalent attitudes towards plastics and their use, particularly in regards to the environment and sustainability.
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11 November 1945.
M. Kaufman, the First Century of Plastics, The Plastics Institute, London, 1963. pg55
Written by Erika Dicker / Michelle Brown / Rachel Dowling
Assistant Curators, March 2008.