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Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century

Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century

by Stephen Fenichell

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From artificial hearts to pink flamingos, kevlar vests to credit cards, plastic has invaded every aspect of modern life. Surpassing wood, cotton, steel and glass in all categories (except possibly good taste), it is more than just a product of modern society: it has revolutionized our entire way of life.

Plastic traces the obscure origins of synthetic


From artificial hearts to pink flamingos, kevlar vests to credit cards, plastic has invaded every aspect of modern life. Surpassing wood, cotton, steel and glass in all categories (except possibly good taste), it is more than just a product of modern society: it has revolutionized our entire way of life.

Plastic traces the obscure origins of synthetic materials to present: a century's worth of information on the fascinating inventors, speculators and designers who ushered in the plastic invasion. Among the colorful characters: John Wesley Harding, who pursued a quixotic quest to create the perfect billiard ball; and Wallace Carothers, who committed suicide just as the sexual revolution was about to be ushered in by his creation, nylon stockings. Written in the tradition of James Womack's The Machine that Changed the World, this is a fresh and eminently entertaining look at an ubiquitous and nearly indestructible substance, and the way it has shaped our world.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This compelling, often surprising saga of the invention of plastic and its transformation of society will rivet your attention, challenge your preconceptions and open up new vistas of science, history and popular culture. Unlike detractors who dismiss plastic as tacky, cheap or environmentally unsound, Fenichell, a freelance writer, celebrates its unsung role in modern life. Polyethylene airborne-radar insulation (which the British had and the Nazis didn't) helped the Allies win the air war over Europe. Computer discs and audio- and videotape make possible the information age, while plastic hearts and limbs prolong and improve human life. Fenichell unreels a resilient tale of scientific discovery, tragedies, rare ingenuity, serendipity. Upstate New York printer John Wesley Hyatt failed in his quest to make the perfect non-ivory billiard ball, but instead, in 1868, created the first thermoplastic, the ideal material for the coming Machine Age. Depressive Harvard chemist Wallace Carothers invented synthetic silk (nylon) in 1934, but committed suicide three years later, obsessed with his failure as a scientist. Tracking vinyl, rayon, Teflon, Bakelite, polyester and so forth, Fenichell carries the story to pop art, Tupperware, environmental artist Christo's outdoor wrappings and new biodegradable plastics used in ecologically fashionable fibers, dissolvable films and recyclable bottles. $20,000 ad/promo. (July)
Library Journal
In this history of plastic from the mid-19th century to the present, freelance writer Fenichell includes information on the use of plastics in industry (both in peace and war), the arts, popular culture, and fashion. Apparently for the sake of popular appeal, the author provides a chatty rather than analytical treatment, lacking documentation and being generally pro-plastic in tone. He makes some reference to the negative aspects of the industry, but the breezy writing style precludes his dealing with such issues thoroughly. Although his book has some use as a broad overview of the subject, a better choice would be Jeffrey L. Meikle's American Plastic: A Cultural History (Rutgers Univ., 1995). Not enthusiastically recommended.Leigh Darbee, Indiana Historical Society, Indianapolis
Mary Whaley
Beginning with a quote from the classic 1967 movie "The Graduate", in which the hero is urged to seek a great future in "plastics," Fenichell reviews the history of polyethylene, the plastic used for everything from dry cleaning bags to tethers on a space shuttle. A polymer whose molecules are all oriented in the same direction, it has one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any material on earth, and the author considers plastic the defining medium of the twentieth century. It now provides material prerequisite for information storage and retrieval, analog and digital, and for a myriad of other uses in modern technology. Plastic initially got little respect in the U.S. It was looked down upon as a cheap substitute exemplified by the fashion of leisure suits, and it wasn't until 1979 (the so-called age of plastic) when global volume of plastics production outstripped that of steel. Plastic gained public acceptance in the 1980s with the plastic artificial heart. The author takes us through the environmental problems with plastic until the development of biodegradable properties and shows us the danger it posed until toxins were eliminated.
David Futrelle
In the 1960s and '70s, plastic served as an omnipresent symbol of all that was wrong with western civilization -- a culture at once wasteful, prefabricated and just plain tacky. "I sometimes think there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer," Norman Mailer once remarked, "and it's plastic."

Plastic is no longer such a convenient villain. "After decades in the doghouse, plastic has come back with a vengeance," Stephen Fenichell writes in,Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century. "With remarkable resiliency and pliability appropriate to its protean nature, plastic has cunningly mutated back into our good graces in recent years." Nature-lovers adorn themselves in clothing made from recycled plastic and carry their refillable plastic mugs with pride. Even Mailer seems to have come around, contributing a kind blurb to the back cover of this more or less plastic-friendly volume.

Fenichell's book offers an informal history of the plastic age, from the debut of Parkesine in the 1860s ("HARD as IVORY, TRANSPARENT or OPAQUE...made of the most BRILLIANT COLORS") to the stealthy return of polyester "microfiber" to the fashion runways today. It's an often engaging book, chronicling the invention of everything from Bakelite to Teflon, the complex legal battles over various plastic patents and the remarkable popular enthusiasm for new plastic products that has erupted again and again over the years. During the cellophane-mania of the 1930s, one Cornell professor began experimentally feeding the material to students -- a strategy that he hoped would allow "fat people desiring to reduce to ingest bulk without calories." (Shades of olestra?) A decade later, near-riots erupted at stores carrying the then-revolutionary nylon stocking. The chemical side of the story, as Fenichell tells it, is one of fortuitous spills and less-than-fortuitous side effects: John Wesley Hyatt discovered the secrets of celluloid after one such spill in 1868 -- but his plans to manufacture celluloid billiard balls were thwarted by the material's tendency to blow up.

But if Fenichell has a good eye for anecdotes, he's not much of an organizer: the book flops haphazardly from topic to topic, with such disregard for chronology that at times I wondered if even Fenichell knew what decade he was covering. And because he is so frustratingly vague in dealing with the environmental effects of our widespread plastic use, one hardly knows whether to take his scattered final chapter as a cautious celebration of plastic's victory or a bittersweet elegy to a material as problematic as it is pliable. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable book for anyone seriously interested in the story of an indispensable material.

Kirkus Reviews
A wooden attempt to do for plastic what Daniel Yergin did for oil.

From nylon to Kevlar to Lucite to Silly Putty, Fenichell (Other People's Money, 1985) tries to provide an encyclopedic catalogue of the development and cultural impact of a material that has more incarnations than a Hindu deity (although, despite his general thoroughness, he omits such minor frissons as Haskelite). Developed during the golden age of chemistry, when dedicated amateurs bumbled about in makeshift labs seeking substitutes for silk, rubber, even ivory billiard balls, most early, cellulose- based plastics were the result of fortuitous accidents, usually spills, fires, or mistakes. Haphazard discovery yielded to invention when the amateurs were replaced by teams of industrial chemists on the payrolls of giant chemical corporations such as Du Pont and I.G. Farben (which, as Fenichell details, collaborated extensively with the Nazis). Huge profits were made as product after product rolled out of the research labs. Sometimes, as with Silly Putty, it was years before anyone could think of a use for the new materials. With the debut in 1939 of nylon, the first all- synthetic fiber, plastics began to take a strange hold on the American imagination, inducing a kind of kitschy madness in which hygiene and similitude were paramount. Fenichell has dug up a number of fascinating and revealing tidbits, and his account has a certain quirky appeal. But it is poorly organized and repetitive, as he jumps from material to material (it would have worked better as an encyclopedia). Even for a lay audience, the chemistry is very skimpy, and except for some awkward interpolations, Fenichell tends to slight plastic's historical significance.

Not a cheap, flashy bauble, but not quite brilliantly colored Bakelite jewelry either.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.23(d)

What People are Saying About This

Douglas Coupland
"Oddly funny, grippingly readable and crammed with wads of cool facts that make you see the 20th century in a whole new light."
Betsey Johnson
"Go Plastic! Synthetic times, modern, courageous, hip, hot but cool, indestructible and 'computer-connected.' Thanks, Stephen, for applauding plastic in your factual, fascinating and funny way. Plastic forever.' XOXO
Norman Mailer
"At last! For anyone who hates plastic and likes good writing, this is the book to satisfy your anger, your pleasure and your instinctive judgment and all at once."

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