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H5052 Buttons (17), casein urea / polymethyl methacrylate / cardboard, made by General Plastics Ltd, New South Wales, Australia, 1950. Click to enlarge.

Plastic buttons

Made 1950
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.

Perspex is a registered trade name for polymethyl methacrylate or PMMA. Initially developed as a safety glass for military application, the material became highly popular after World War II for a variety of applications.

These buttons are an example of products being made in Australia from casein plastic and Perspex in the 1950s.

These objects are 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.

Reference:

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
Assistant Curator, March 2008

Summary

Object No.

H5052

Object Statement

Buttons (17), casein urea / polymethyl methacrylate / cardboard, made by General Plastics Ltd, New South Wales, Australia, 1950

Physical Description

Buttons (17), casein urea / polymethyl methacrylate / cardboard, made by General Plastics Ltd, New South Wales, Australia, 1950

A Selection of casein urea and Perspex Button mounted on 17 cards (SB).

Production

Made

1950

Notes

Casein plastics are based on a protein found predominantly in milk, the word casein being derived from the Latin word 'caseus', which means cheese. 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 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 added to the demise of casein plastics.

The name 'Perspex' is a registered trade name for polymethyl methacrylate or PMMA. It is also known as Lucite in the USA, and Plexiglass in Germany. Perspex was trade marked in 1934 by Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI) in London. Perspex is a transparent acrylic that is hard and transparent. It was first developed as a safety glass and was manufactured into sheets and rods, which could then fabricated by machining, thermoforming, and engraving. The aircraft industry was the first major user of Perspex in the 1930s and it was widely used in military aircraft during World War II. Due to Perspex's excellent weathering resistance and light transparency, it was used in aircraft glazing, and as an alternative to glass in windshields and instrument panels. After the war, Perspex became easily accessible and was fashioned into all kinds of fancy dress goods, decorative objects, household goods, and found a particular application in the making of dentures.

Australia was the first to use Perspex in the manufacture of bathtubs in 1948. It was the first time Perspex had been used in such an application, initiated from the tremendous effort involved in moving heavy cast iron baths. The strong, durable, and easily coloured characteristics of the plastic, lent itself to being perfectly suited for the production of baths. This Australian innovation resulted in acrylic becoming the internationally preferred material for the production of baths by the 1990s. Perspex is still widely used as a safe alternative to glass in many industries such as medical technology, furniture, engineering, and the decorative arts.

Reference:
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
Know Your Plastics, Plastics Industry Association Inc, Australia, 1980
Casein information sheet, Plastiquarian, available at: www.plastiquarian.com/casein2.htm, 2008.
John Acres, Seeing a Problem Through, Journal of the Plastics Historical Society, No 14, Winter, 1994/5, pg 4-5
A. R. Penfold, Modern Trends in the Manual Arts, lecture series, MAAS archive MRS 307-12/14:24

History

Notes

These display boards were donated to the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences by General Plastics Limited in 1950 as an addition to the Museum's growing plastics collection.

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. It is likely that this sample was displayed during this exhibition, along with the first permanent plastics display established at the museum. 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. The highlight of the exhibition was a standard hydraulic press that produced synthetic resin objects while the audience watched. This was lent by John Heine and Son and run by staff from the College's Mechanical Engineering department. It utilised dies made by College students and synthetic moulding resin powders from local plastic companies. 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' .

Reference::
Chemlink Consultants, Australia's Chemical Industry - History and development, available at http://www.chemlink.com.au/chemhist.htm, 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

Source

Credit Line

Gift of General Plastics Ltd, 1950

Acquisition Date

27 February 1950

Cite this Object

Harvard

Plastic buttons 2020, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 28 May 2020, <https://ma.as/241720>

Wikipedia

{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/241720 |title=Plastic buttons |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=28 May 2020 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}

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