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Plastic fantastic; CHRISTOPHER PROUDLOVE explores the often overlooked story of celluloid.

ICAME across this motley crew in my local antique shop. I wonder how many more were brought home in kitbags by troops returning from Occupied Japan. At least as many more found their way here in the late Fifties as tourist souvenirs. I wonder too how many of their original purchasers thought they were buying pieces of carved ivory.

Thankfully, not one of them ever saw an elephant. Fact is, they are all made from the magical, first commercially produced man-made plastic: celluloid.

Without it we might never have had movies - early films were shot on it - but that's only a fraction of the story.

With new legislation pending that will outlaw its sale, they would be valueless had they been made from ivory. As plastic copies of what collectors term "okimono" (literally "placed" objects in a Japanese home), each has a value, but it ain't a lot, which is fine if funds are limited.

Nevertheless, the little knickknacks - most are only a few inches high - can claim pride of place among all plastic "antiques" as being the first to emulate the intricate detail of craftsmen pieces carved centuries earlier.

Why Japan became so important in celluloid production is because it enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the manufacture of camphor, one of the three basic ingredients. The other two are cellulose, obtained from cotton lint, and nitric acid.

A celluloid clamshell Camphor is distilled from the Cinnamonum camphorum tree, the greatest abundance of which in the world was found in Formosa, now Taiwan, but formerly an island in the Japanese empire.

Quick to recognise the potential, Japanese industrialists had opened two factories producing camphor by 1908, to be followed over the next decade by many more, all of them fighting with each other to corner the market. The eventual winner was probably Dainippon Celluloid, formed by the merger of the top 12 manufacturers in 1919.

Ironically, it was a Birmingham inventor, Alexander Parkes (1813-1890) the son of a lock maker, who was first to make plastic, examples of which such as medallions, knife handles and combs, he showed at the International Exhibition in London in 1862.

He called the material "Parkesine", which he patented in the same year, but he failed to capitalise on what was the dawn of arguably the most important industry of the 20th century.

A poor businessman, Parkes ended bankrupt, handing the business and patent over to one of his competitors, Daniel Spill (1832-1887), a Gloucestershire inventor who made rubber-coated cloth for waterproof capes and groundsheets.

Spill called his refined product Xylonite, by which time his competitor, a New York printer, John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920) accepted a challenge from an American billiard ball maker to make a substitute for ivory. The prize was $10,000.

He had refined Parkesine and while he failed to win the prize, the balls cracked with a loud bang on hitting one another, he was the first to call his product celluloid, which he patented in 1870.

He was also sued by Spill in a number of cases without success, the court ruling eventually that neither man had the rights of exclusivity.

Hyatt and his brother, Isaiah, were able to take full advantage of the ready supply of cotton to provide cellulose and together they founded the American Celluloid Company, which today is the plastics division of the Celanese Corporation.

The plastics age was born and it transformed the world - not always for the better.

Celluloid was the marvel that kick-started it all. Its one main drawback, however, was its high flammability, a particular problem with cine film.

Nevertheless, it could be formed into almost any shape, while a hot air blow-moulding process, also perfected by Hyatt, could produce threedimensional hollow objects of surprising delicacy.

However delicate and intricate the moulds, though, nothing could compare with the skill and artistry of the Japanese craftsmen who centuries earlier A with had perfected the complexities of carving ivory by hand.

Not only did they excel at creating finely worked moulds, they were also able to carve blocks and rods of celluloid to construct objects in exactly the same way as treasured pieces of antique okimono.

Instead of ivory, however, here was a raw material the supply of which was inexhaustible and for a fraction of the cost. It could also be dyed and painted and products changed as frequently as fashion and demand required.

Japan's tourist souvenir industry went into overdrive, producing everything from jewellery to dressing table setsand the pieces illustrated here.

My favourite (and not just because it's the biggest piece) is the sailing boat, more correctly called a "Takarabune", or treasure ship, aboard which are Japan's aptly named Household Gods.

The Japanese name for them is the "Shichi Fukujin", the Seven Lucky Gods, and they are among those most frequently portrayed in all manner of Japanese art forms, each bringing with them their seven precious gifts.

Unlike some Japanese gods, the magnificent seven hold no religious significance but represent the seven basic elements of what the Japanese see as necessities for a life of happiness: longevity, wealth, ability, daily food, strength, love and beauty and learning and achievement.

Each god has its own personality and characteristics and a Japanese household would choose one or more to honour and represent the things its members desire most.

Today's collectors of Japanese works of art can make their own choice.

the Large numbers were made for the tourist trade during the Meiji period (1868-1912), particularly in porcelain and ivory, and they remain relatively common. The celluloid version is worth perhaps PS25-35.

Perhaps the most useful object is the photo frame modelled as a watermill, the thatched dwelling set against a backdrop of the sacred Mount Fuji, one of Japan's three holy mountains. It would hold a photograph the size of a postcard and is worth PS20-25.

The rickshaw pulling a geisha who protects her complexion from the sun with a parasol has spoked wheels which revolve like the watermill, while the fisherman with a tub at his feet and a wicker basket on his back complete with coloured fish is as charming as the woodcutter. Each is worth PS10-15.

The tiepin and cufflinks are clearly the youngest pieces in the group, dating from the 1950s. If you still wear such things, they could be yours for the proverbial tenner.
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Publication:Daily Post (Conwy, Wales)
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:May 11, 2019
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