Ask most people what they consider the most significant invention in history and their answers may range from automobile to computer. Ask Julie Robinson, however, and you’ll get a different, and somewhat arguable and curious, response — celluloid.
“It was a phenomenal invention … one of the most important inventions ever,” said Robinson, author of several books on the historic plastic, including Celluloid Dolls, Toys and Playthings (Collector Books, 2005). “It changed everything. It changed industry; it changed society,” said Robinson, who repairs vintage celluloid items in her upstate New York home.
Created in the late 1860s as a substitute for costlier ivory, tortoise, amber and jet, celluloid became much more than a raw material; it soon became a society equalizer. “It bridged the gap between the classes,” Robinson said. While the wealthy bought dentures, vanity sets, jewelry and other items made of the pricier materials, “now the working classes could enjoy that luxury,” she added.
Celluloid — a mix of 65 percent cellulose nitrate fiber and 35 percent camphor — also allowed manufacturers to mass produce pieces in a quicker, more economical fashion. But while the first commercial use of celluloid was dentures, Robinson said, “It was on the scene for about 20 years before they used it in toys.
“As celluloid manufacture spread around the globe, mass production and trade flooded the market with reasonably priced playthings to entertain children,” Robinson said. “The very first toys were rattles.” Many poured onto the market in the late 1800s. Retail price, according to a Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog of the era, was 25 cents each. Today, collectors might pay $25 to $40 for a vintage celluloid rattle with bells inside the ball; multicolored examples could bring more.
But dolls were among the most notable uses of celluloid in the toy world, beginning with the designs of European toymakers. Prior to the use of celluloid, Europe — most notably France and Germany — was known for its heavy and elaborately coiffed and dressed bisque dolls. “Nobody saw any need to change that,” Robinson said. With the advent of this new material, however, the Germans took the reins and, by 1896, were the first to make celluloid dolls.
“One of the greatest benefits is the dolls were lightweight,” Robinson said. “You had a doll that was easier to handle. Play for little children changed.”
But celluloid’s use in American toymaking didn’t take off until World War I, according to Robinson. Leading the way was the Viscoloid Co. of Massachusetts. While they made combs and vanity sets of “the greatest quality,” Robinson said, they also made small figural toys and dolls — most 3 to 8 inches. By the end of World War I, Viscoloid was the nation’s leading maker of celluloid toys, employing 350 workers in that division alone.
Many of their toys favored by consumers then — and coveted by collectors today — are holiday novelties, including bunnies and baskets for Easter; cats and pumpkins for Halloween; and, of course, Santas and sleighs for Christmas.
All holiday celluloid pieces have a solid following among collectors. Vintage celluloid Santas — most dating from 1914 to the Depression — are favorites among Christmas collectors. Those made in America, Japan and Germany are charming, and some are still surprisingly affordable. Key to value? Size and detail. Robinson said, “The larger they get, the more expensive.” Small (3 to 5 inches) standing Santa figures from Japan might bring $25 to $45. More ornate examples (Santa by a chimney, riding a vehicle, holding a dog, roly polys) bring bigger bucks. The holy grail, Robinson said, would be a Santa riding a zeppelin figure; that could bring $700 or more.
And Halloween pieces are among the most collectible, rare and elusive celluloid novelty toys. Less popular when they were made in the 1920s, Halloween novelty toys now enjoy almost cult status now with collectors seeking their imagery. “The more imagery, the more expensive,” Robinson said. Some Halloween pieces — black, orange or multicolored — can bring $300 or more depending on condition, imagery and rarity.
In the first years of the 20th century, while Visoloid and other American manufacturers were cranking out celluloid toys, Japan got in on the action. Since the area now known as Taiwan was heavily forested with camphor trees, the raw material to make celluloid was plentiful. Most Japanese celluloid doll makers mass produced small, inexpensive carnival dolls. With less detailing and an often lower quality, Japanese celluloid toys are not as popular today with collectors.
Celluloid toys enjoyed a heyday that stretched several decades in several countries. But by the 1930s, the material was falling out of favor, mainly due to its potential dangers. Safety issues vexed the industry. Celluloid was brittle, and toys could break easily. “If they did break,” Robinson said, “the shards could be very sharp.” And because it is made of the same chemical composition as plastic explosives, celluloid is extremely flammable. “I’ve heard horror stories about children who were maimed,” Robinson said. “Common sense says this was a dangerous material.”
Also by the 1930s, non-flammable cellulose plastics were introduced. “It was the progressive era for plastics,” Robinson said. “They stopped manufacturing celluloid at major factories,” she said when the benefits of newer plastics outweighed the drawbacks of celluloid.
Because of celluloid’s flammability, there was a huge push in the 1940s and 1950s — by parents and local fire departments — to eradicate the use of celluloid in toys. And by 1947, rattles, which coincidentally were the first celluloid toys as well, were the last celluloid toys to roll off assembly lines. Today, very few items —among them, ping-pong balls — are manufactured of celluloid.
Collectors continue to be drawn by the charm of 20th-century celluloid wonders, and why not? “They are beautiful little pieces of art,” Robinson said. “Kids would play with these things by the hour. They speak of a simpler time.”
But even if collectors can’t remember celluloid from their youth, Robinson said, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
All photos courtesy of Julie Robinson from her book Celluloid Dolls, Toys and Playthings (Collector