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Friday, December 6, 2013

Celluloid Dresser Sets

Celluloid was a common material used to manufacture vanity and dresser sets starting in the mid 1800s up until around the 1930s, when it was replaced by other plastics like Bakelite and Lucite.

Wikipedia states that "Celluloid is the name of a class of compounds created from nitrocellulose and camphor, plus dyes and other agents. Generally regarded to be the first thermoplastic, it was first created as Parkesine in 1856 and as Xylonite in 1869 before being registered as Celluloid in 1870.

Celluloid is easily molded and shaped, and it was first widely used as an ivory replacement. Celluloid is highly flammable and also easily decomposes, and is no longer widely used. Its most common uses today are in table tennis balls and guitar picks."

More detailed information on the manufacture and patenting of celluloid, can be found on wikipedia.

Some of the trade names used on the dresser accessories are:
  • Pyralin/Pyrolin
  • French Ivory
  • Agalin
  • Celluloid
  • Fiberloid
  • Ivory Fiberloid
  • Ivoroid
  • Zylonite
  • Ivoris
  • Ivorine
  • Arch-Amerith
  • Goldaleur
  • Silvaleur

Celluloid dresser sets were very plain in the Victorian and Edwardian periods and were made to simulate ivory, at first these really did look like ivory, complete with the characteristic Schreger lines. Some of these items could be had with monograms engraved into the celluloid with flourishing scripts or affixed with luxurious sterling silver plaques. Eventually the items were adorned with elegant engraved decor around the borders which was piqued out in black or blue staining.

Vanity Sets Comprised of Many Pieces:


Advertisements encouraged women to "build up complete sets" starting off with just a few pieces such as a mirror and brush and then adding hair receivers, trays or manicure items.

Dresser sets could include any of the following accessories:
  • Hand mirror
  • Brushes in various sizes and shapes
  • Shoe horn
  • Powder box
  • Rouge or salve pots
  • Hair receiver
  • Comb
  • Manicure implements: hair tweezers, finger rest, cuticle knife, corn knife, nail picks, nail file, nail buffer, cuticle scissors
  • Toothbrush
  • Candlestick
  • Picture frame
  • Large tray
  • Pin tray
  • Hatpin holder
  • Boudoir clock
  • Buttonhook 
  • Glove stretcher
  • Perfume or Cologne bottle in celluloid caddy
  • Perfume atomizer
  • Sewing implements, including scissors, stilettos, needle cases, winders, spools
  • Boudoir lamp
  • Tooth powder bottle
  • Talcum shaker
  • Bud vases
  • Bonnet brush
  • Soap box
  • Hair pin holder
  • Jewel box
  • Pin cushion
  • Glove box
  • Handkerchief box
  • Shaving brush
  • Shaving stick case
  • Tooth brush box
  • and other items

Some of the finest dresser sets came in elaborate cases in the late Victorian era. Many of these cases stood upright and were fitted with a multitude of manicure implements, perfume bottles, hand mirrors, brushes and combs, rouge pots and powder boxes.





DuPont aggressively advertised their new celluloid product which they called "Pyralin Toilet Ware" from 1917-1929.  Though celluloid was formally introduced at the 1862 World's Fair, and small companies had produced some celluloid items, it was DuPont who was one of the first companies to really push the celluloid dresser sets to the national public using widespread advertising campaigns especially in magazines.





By the early 1920s, the Ivory Pyralin was seen as outdated and consumers wanted more modern styled vanity accessories. So to give the ladies a little more variety, DuPont introduced the "Amber Pyralin" line of solid amber colored translucent celluloid and the "Shell Pyralin" line of imitation tortoiseshell celluloid in 1923. These items could be had in duo tone "Ivory on Amber" and "Shell on Amber".





Some of these 1920s ads were colorized and showed off the beauty of the dresser sets, which made them attractive options for feminine gifts. In 1925, DuPont purchased the Viscoloid Company and merged into a single subsidiary called the DuPont Viscoloid Company.

Between 1925-1927 the DuPont company began to introduce bright, new colors to the vanity lines: white pearl, rose pearl (pink), jade pearl (green), and maize pearl (yellow), instead of the boring old ivory. These pieces could be found with the marbleized tops and amber celluloid bottoms, known as "Pearl on Amber".

Also around this time, perfume bottles with celluloid daubers could be found fitted with Cambridge glass bottles as private molds were made for the DuPont Viscoloid Company. This is noted by the Cambridge glass collector's society.
"The Cambridge private mold listing does include a number of bottles for Gironde, Devilbiss and Van Woud as well as for Dupont Visacloid [sic] Company, Irving Rice & Company, Jor Jorian Brothers and Globe Art. Unfortunately, the descriptions provided are minimal and there is no way of knowing what these bottles may have looked like. Recognizing them as Cambridge, if at all possible, will have to be based on known Cambridge colors and decorations."



DuPont's direct competitor for these items was the "Arch Amerith" line of celluloid (cellulose nitrate/pyroxylin) products made by the Celanese Corp. of America. (Celluloid was actually a trade name used by Celanese Corp.)

Another competitor's marking to be found is "Art-Y-Zan" made by the Celluloid Corp., of New York. Across the pond, in England, the trade name "La Futuriste" was used for a modernistic line of celluloid toilet ware known as "Agalin" manufactured by NTS. The Futuriste line was directly inspired by the early designs by Gustav Jensen for DuPont's "Pyralin" line and Paul Frankl's "Amerith" line for Celluloid Corp. in 1929.



Celluloid also came with various finishes or motifs. Introduced in 1920, "Goldaleur" and "Silvaleur" were celluloid pieces laminated with silver or gold glitter manufactured by The Celluloid Company (marking: TC Co). Other laminated effects such as stripes and banding, such as "Tinseloid", were also popular. Starting in the 1920s and into the 1930s, pieces began to become more ornate and many were studded with colored rhinestones or were engraved and piqued out in enamel.

In 1928, the Viscoloid Company announced the invention of a "new material",  Lucite. Advertised as an entirely new product, it was in fact a celluloid product, just like Pyralin was. Vanity sets made from Lucite came in translucent bright colors.  Other vanity sets had Pyralin parts and crystal clear, translucent, Lucite handles. Soon, the Lucite dresser sets started to replace those made up of marbled celluloid.




 DuPont conducted many surveys and did extensive market research into what the modern woman was looking for in a vanity set, including what colors she was most attracted to. Based on their market research, the company introduced several new vanity set designs: Ming, Wedgwood, Watteau, Empire, Diane, Sonya, Venetia, Navarre and Orchis.

The new opaque Lucite colors were a big leap from the plain old imitation ivory sets of yesteryear. With newly dubbed names such as Napoleonic blue, imperial green, colonial buff, and mandarin red, these exotic hues helped rein in potential customers.



In 1936, the market for the large vanity set had diminished with women's ever changing tastes, and a new Plastics Department had taken over the Pyralin and Lucite manufacturing, gradually phasing out the vanity sets to focus on other products.



Care of Celluloid:


Celluloid must be handled and stored with care, it is extremely flammable and should be kept away from heat sources. Heat will melt, distort or ignite the celluloid. Goldaleur and Silvaleur dresser sets are especially vulnerable to a corrosion of the plastic laminate which results in ugly verdigris chemical bloom, a greening which is irreversible and will spread to your other pieces.

If one of your pieces is starting to corrode or show any sort of damage, throw it away, if not kept away from your other pieces, the glasses caused by the chemicals breaking down will spread to your other pieces and they will soon start to disintegrate too.



Product trade names similar to celluloid: Premalite, Meletone, Pierretone.

Information paraphrased here was gleaned from the book "Producing Fashion: Commerce, Culture, and Consumers".

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