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H4662 Buttons (25) and packaging, casein formaldehyde / paper, made by General Plastics Ltd, Sydney, from rennet produced at Taree, New South Wales, Australia, 1944. Click to enlarge.

Casein buttons

  • 1944
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 …


Object No.


Object Statement

Buttons (25) and packaging, casein formaldehyde / paper, made by General Plastics Ltd, Sydney, from rennet produced at Taree, New South Wales, Australia, 1944

Physical Description

Buttons, casein formaldehyde, made by General Plastics Ltd, Sydney, from rennet produced at Taree, New South Wales, Australia, 1944

Sample of first rennet casein produced in N.S.W. (SB).

An envelope with the handwritten annotation: 'Buttons made from NSW rennet casein' and additional note originally stuck on it with the handwritten annotation: 'Rennet casein produced at Taree October 1944'. Handwritten annotation on the card with 17 plain buttons: '2 sent to Plastics Advisory Com[mittee]'.

Two cards with buttons sewn on, one with 17 plain cream buttons (of 24 originally on the card) and the other with 7 larger decorated buttons (of 12 originally on the card). These have been re-registered ('source unknown') as 85/2528 and 85/2527 respectively but are highly likely to have been the buttons that were in the envelope.



  • 1944


Casein plastics are based on a protein found predominantly in milk, the word casein being derived from the Latin word 'caseus', which means cheese. They are often known as casein formaldehyde.

Casein plastic was patented in Germany in 1899 . It was produced in rods, or sheets, made into knitting needles, pen barrels, or stamped out into buttons and buckles, then hardened in a mixture of formaldehyde. These products could be easily dyed into whatever colours were fashionable at the time.

Casein plastic was first introduced to the world under the product name 'Galalithe' at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900. In the following years the development process of casein plastics was undertaken by two companies; Vereinigten Gummivarenfabriken in Germany and Pellerin & Orosdi in France. These companies merged under the one name, International Galalithe Gesellschaft Hoff & Company, in 1904. The company developed a manufacturing process that used dried casein granules, which became the universal standard in processing casein, and remained virtually unchanged throughout its history.

This 'dry process' involved precipitating rennet casein from skim milk and then drying and grinding it. The resulting powder was mixed with water, colourants and other chemicals and extruded to produce sheets or rods. The dry process superseded a long, costly process that used wet milk curds as the primary material.

This type of plastic is rarely manufactured in the 21st century due to its labour intensive manufacturing process and the development of cheaper and more easily made products. Some also say that the popularisation of dairy products such as skim milk added to the demise of casein plastics.

Casein was being developed in Australia around 1939. This button is one of the earliest casein products to be manufactured in New South Wales.

John Morgan, From Milk to Manicure Sets the Casein Process, in the Journal of the Plastics Historical Society, No. 1, Winter, 1988, pg 13
M. Kaufman, The First Century of Plastics, The Plastics Institute, London, 1963. pg 55
Casein information sheet, Plastiquarian, available at:, 2008.



During the Second World War, the Museum undertook many investigations seen as important to the nation's war effort. One of these investigations was aimed at utilising waste products of the dairy industry. Curator Arthur Penfold was probably in close contact with General Plastics Ltd, which donated these and other objects to the Museum in 1944.

It is often perceived that plastics are a material of the twentieth century; however, its beginnings go back to eighteenth century Europe and conditions created by rapid industrialisation, scientific curiosity and opportunities to create great wealth through innovative and entrepreneurial ideas. Many of the semi-synthetic plastics of the nineteenth century and the synthetic plastics of the twentieth century were influenced by earlier manufacturing methods of making products out of natural plastics such as horn and tortoiseshell. The development of synthetic plastics, however, allowed for a product that was not subject to availability and fluctuating costs.

The Australian plastics processing industry began around 1917, growing significantly after World War Two. In 1939 production of plastics was around one thousand tonnes per year and fifty years later it had grown to around nine hundred thousand tonnes . New innovations in plastics, a rising population and increasing home ownership and household consumption were major influences on this growth. Today the plastics industry is one of Australia's largest manufacturing sectors.

Between 26 and 28 September 1934, the Sydney Technical College and the museum collaborated to develop what was advocated as the first Plastics Industry Exhibition in Australia. This exhibition was advocated as the first plastics exhibition in Australia. The museum contributed the majority of the exhibits, which included colourful moulded objects and synthetic resin powders. A feature of the exhibition was a working press mould that turned out plastic objects as the audience watched, lent by John Heine and Son. A Conversazione was held on the evening of 26th September, 1934 'to which prominent citizens, including representatives of the Plastics Industry were invited', and at which both Penfold and Dr N H Lang gave lectures on the plastics industry

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' . Penfold was greatly concerned with the technical and commercial development of local industries, such as the plastics industry, and believed that the museum was 'destined to play a conspicuous part in bringing Science to the aid of industry' through both research and display.

In December 1944 Penfold, along with Mr C H Hunt of Newcastle Technical College, was commissioned by the NSW Government to investigate overseas technological trends in the plastic industry, including the training of technical personnel, throughout the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. On his return Penfold continued to promote the importance of Australia's development of a vigorous research and training program in developing local technical expertise arguing that: 'The field is so vast and the potentialities of plastics is so promising, that no effort should be spared to provide adequate training for all persons wishing to acquire a knowledge of these new materials' .

Chemlink Consultants, Australia's Chemical Industry - History and development, available at, accessed 08/08/2007.
Penfold, A. R., 'Reports on Plastics Investigation, 1945, in the United States of America, Canada and the United Kingdom', 31/10/1945
Penfold, A. R., paper, 'Recent Developments of Plastics Overseas', delivered before the Plastics Institute of Australia, NSW Section, 29/11/1945
Penfold, A. R., 'The Influence of Science Museums on Industry', read at the first Biannual Conference of International Council on Museums, 1948
Sunday Telegraph, 'For plastics he saw great things', 11/11/1945
Sydney Technological Museum, Annual Report, 1934


Credit Line

Gift of General Plastics Ltd, 1945

Acquisition Date

15 March 1945

Cite this Object


Casein buttons 2022, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 3 February 2023, <>


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