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Breaking the Mold: Plastics in Post-War America

Bird Library

04-20-2017 to 05-13-2018

In 1945, as World War Two drew to a close, innovations in plastics ‘broke the mold’ in countless ways. The War years necessitated a great expansion of the plastics industry in the United States, as industrial might proved as important to victory as military success. The need to preserve scarce natural resources made the production of synthetic alternatives a priority. Plastics provided those substitutes. Used to make everything from molded gunner’s enclosures, cockpit windows, mortar fuses, helmet liners, goggles, raincoats, waterproof tents, parachutes, color-coded electrical wiring, and parts for the atom bomb - plastics seeped into all levels of military materiality. When the war ended, however, plastics needed a new market, and the industry turned its attention to the domestic sphere. From breaking down class barriers, to re-articulating gender roles, and re-defining the concept of domesticity, plastics’ efficiency and functionality revolutionized life in post-war America.

The postwar boom in plastic accompanied a postwar surge in the population. This new generation of Americans, the Baby Boomers, grew up in a world of previously unknown material abundance, thanks in large part to inexpensive plastic. The growth of new social spaces – suburbs – moreover, refashioned family relations for many Americans, prompting them to move away from the city. Like their televised counterparts, Ward and June Cleaver, the Breadwinner and Housewife roles created a gendered division of labor outside and inside the home. The consumption of new goods and services became part of the housewife’s expanded job-description; women were not only expected to consume, but to do so in a disciplined and ‘responsible’ way, exercising restraint and ‘good taste’ by choosing well-designed, useful, and efficient goods. Countless commodities that were once made from substances like paper, metal, wood, and glass were now cast in resin. American factories erupted with Tupperware, Formica tables, Fiberglass chairs, hula-hoops, disposable pens, silly putty, and nylon pantyhose. By replacing materials that were hard to find or expensive to process, plastics democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption-oriented middle class.

The appearance and promotion of products like Tupperware, melamine, nylon stockings, plastic toys, and Styrofoam food packaging is thus revealing of the range of forces at work in postwar America: the shaping of modern consumption patterns and expectations, the emergence of novel perceptions of women’s roles in the economies of both the home and larger community, and the ongoing revision of values attached to technology, novelty, and design. Plastics promised a material utopia, available to all.

This exhibit was curated by MUS 506 - Introduction to Curatorship students, who spent the semester researching archival materials and many of the more than 5,000 plastic objects produced from the late-19th century to the present day. This exhibition includes only a small glimpse into the vast collections available at the SCRC.

Currently on view in the Plastics Pioneers Reading Room, 6th floor, Bird Library.