V295: Victorian Plastic – Yes, Victorian; Yes, Plastic

Ever since learning about plastic injection molding of the 1870s, I’ve been gnawing on the idea of Victorian plastics.  It seems like an oxymoron – we all know plastic is a 20th century invention, right? – but while the first fully synthetic plastic was Bakelite, invented in 1907, plastics derived from natural materials had been around for a good half a century before.

Plastic boot buttons

I recently acquired some original boot buttons from who-knows-when.  They could be as old as the 1860s, as young as the 1920s, but are most likely from 1890s-1910s.  They are plastic, with a metal shank, and surprisingly strong.  I did break one, though, and the material inside was…weird…but…indeed plastic.

So, here’s a little run-down of what plastics existed and some of the things they were used for pre-1900.  And next time some snark gives you trouble about the plastic buttons on your Victorian bodice, you can give them a nice send off with these little gems:

Bois Durci – invented 1855, used until post WWI.  This plastic is made of ground wood and either egg, gelatine, or blood albumen for the binder.  Items were press molded, and included such things as picture frames, belt buckles, brooches, clocks, paper weights, figurines, and purses.

A bois durci paperweight

Parkesine – patented 1862, but was unstable, and few items remain.  Parkesine is an early form of celluloid, and produced such items as knife handles and commemorative medallions.  Very few examples remain and are difficult to identify.

Think that antique comb is tortoise shell? Think again – it’s celluloid

Celluloid/Xylonite – patented in 1869, still used today minimally.  Celluloid was originally used as an ivory replacement, to make billiard balls.  It was also used to make cheap jewelry, dolls, picture frames, hat pins, buttons and buckles, pens, knife handles, and many other small items.  It was often referred to as “French Ivory,” or “Ivorine.”  Xylonite, identical to celluloid, was the trade name for the British Xylonite Company Ltd., which still trades today.

A vulcanite brooch

Vulcanite/Ebonite – process first used in 1839, and still in use today.  Vulcanite is made from hardened rubber, through a process of heating the rubber with sulpher.  It was very popular and widely used for imitation jet jewelry, as well as false teeth (weird).

Other old forms of plastic:
Gutta Percha – a naturally occurring rubber-like substance.
Casein – made from skimmed milk, lactic acid, and formaldehyde.
Shellac – made from the secretions of the Lac beetle.
Union – made from shellac and additional fillers.

So there you have it – Victorian plastics used for all manner of things.  So when you’re deciding on your hair combs, brooches, and buttons for your next Victorian costume, don’t be afraid of the plastics!  If it looks like ivory, horn, bone, toirtoise shell, mother of pearl, or jet, you’re all good. 🙂


  • AuntieNan

    October 23, 2012 at 4:11 PM

    Thanks! I have some of those buttons — some black, some look like MOP (grey irridescent) and some cream.

    I also have some very unstable (i.e. FLAKY) amber-colored buttons, carved in floral shapes. Never used 'em, but wondered…

    Fascinating research!

  • Lizzardtears

    October 24, 2012 at 12:31 AM

    recently I was telling a friend who does civil war reenacting that they had plastics during the civil war, but I didn’t have the names and dates of what kind of plastics. I just remembered learning about it a million years ago in elementary school, but she didn’t seem to believe me. though she is not a stickler about authenticity others are and give people a really hard time about plastic being used on the dresses. this is great info, and definitely something to pass on to people who don't know.

    • Lauren Stowell

      October 29, 2012 at 12:30 AM

      Ah, just memorize the names and dates of some of these and you can whip out the knowledge when needed! Kindof makes me want to purposefully put plastic buttons on my next Victorian 🙂

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