The Plastic Age

3 July 1933

When I was a child, learning history in school, we went back beyond the Spanish Armada, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kings and queens, beyond Boudica and Alexander the Great and the Hittite rulers to what my teacher used to refer to as The Ages. These Ages were indefinably long and unimaginably long ago. First came the Stone Age, cold and uncomfortable to our childish minds, without eiderdowns or kettles or books. The Bronze Age was next, and then the Iron Age, bringing war in the form of swords and spear tips – as if they hadn’t existed before. It was all such a muddle of materials and history, dinosaurs and cavemen rolled into one impossible account. As I child, all I could imagine were the things those people didn’t have, and how their lives must have had kettle- and eiderdown-shaped holes. Now, of course, I understand that new materials bring new technology and that it is the subsequent possibilities that matter and change the world for ever.

Lately, though, after whole history books of materials staying largely the same, we have entered a new Age: the Plastic Age. We’ve had these queer, malleable products for some time now – even my grandfather had a MacIntosh coat. I grew up with India rubber-soled shoes and bouncing balls. Increasingly, though, there are new plastics available. There are three pairs of luxurious rayon stockings in my drawer, cheaper than silk but just as smart. I have a dress and a blouse in washing silk. It was slippery to cut and sew but such a delight to wear: lightweight and smooth and elegant. It isn’t as though I wouldn’t have had a blouse or a pair of silk stockings before – of course I did. But now, when I would have worn a cotton blouse, I can choose a silky one instead for a fraction of the cost of real silk. There are cheaper alternatives to rubber products, which don’t disintegrate due to grease and sunlight. There are vinyl records behind the sliding doors of the gramophone cabinet, next to the more brittle shellac. And our new telephone is bakelite, which is as weightless as its name suggests.

It seems as though the pace of plastics is accelerating all the time. I wonder, did the people of the Bronze Age feel the same about small shifts in their technology? Only yesterday John came home with some Scotch tape that he’d been testing at the factory – a sticky plastic strip for holding parcels closed. Before, there was nothing wrong with string, but it suddenly feels second-rate. I wonder what will be next – our bags? Our books? The pots and pans in my kitchen?

It is remarkable how many things can be made from these new materials. We see them in and about the house, and they make little improvements to our lives, but I wonder about how they might be used in hospitals and schools and – heaven forbid – another war. If I think of Now as the Plastic Age, rather than just 1933, it puts me in mind of the evolution of the sword and the cannon and, finally, the machine gun. And then I have to remind myself of the stove, and the motor car, and the wheelchair. I suppose there aren’t such things as good or bad materials. Their virtue depends entirely on what we make from them.

Cecily

PS – I was trying to imagine how Cecily would feel about the advent of plastics. They were beginning to sell in the 1930s, and then the Second World War happened and it was after the war that they really took off as consumer goods. I suspect she would have felt the way a lot of people felt about the internet – aware of its possibilities, but also aware of its dangers and limitations in a vague, nameless sort of way. Or maybe I’m wrong, and she would have just embraced them wholeheartedly. I am by no means an expert on the topic – it’s just a little thought experiment. What do you think?

PPS – I’ve very deliberately included some naturally derived materials in Cecily’s post. We don’t think of rubber, shellac, rayon and the like as ‘plastics’ today, but apparently they did, back then. Plastic means ‘malleable’ (hence ‘plastic surgery’), and so all these new malleable materials were included under the same name.