How the Word 'Plastic' Became a Complex Metaphor

From environmentally safe, to counterfeit, to adaptable

American Plastic: A Cultural History

By Jeffrey L. Meikle

Rutgers University Press

403 pp., $49.95

Even if you missed the movie, you know the line. It ranks with "Rosebud" as film's most quoted single word. In "The Graduate" (1967), an apathetic college graduate, Dustin Hoffman, receives unsolicited advice: "I just want to say one word to you. Just one word ... Plastics."

Early in his book, Jeffrey L. Meikle recalls the irony of that utterance. By the late 1960s, the word plastic had emerged as a complex metaphor in American culture, signaling the hazards of materialism and a sterile technological future.

But in the late 19th century, when an early form of plastic called celluloid was invented, promoters and the public often praised both the frankly artificial and technology's ability to produce it. Indeed, a problem for the early plastics industry was the extent to which users considered plastic to be only a look-alike product. It was not until the 1920s that plastic was freed from imitating wood, horn, and ivory.

Throughout the first half of the present century, with increased public acceptance of new materials and surging industrial applications for plastics, came utopian conjecture about its potential. Dubbed by advocates "the Plastics Age," the future was envisioned as a time in which a person need never encounter one natural material from childhood to adulthood.

Infants would be given plastic bottles and teething rings. Older siblings would sit at molded desks in schools with shining, unscruffable walls. Homes would provide a "universal plastic environment," in which fresh flowers were encased in transparent plastic. Housecleaning would entail hosing down the place.

Plastic was even seen as a socially beneficial and environmentally correct substance. Since scarcity and depletion of natural materials seemed inevitable, synthetic substitutes were deemed necessary.

Plastic became a conspicuous element of American life after World War II. One of the ways in which its presence was felt was with nylon stockings. Although the public first saw nylons at the two world's fairs just before the war, wartime applications for the material prohibited its widespread consumer use. A hit song of 1943, "When the Nylons Bloom Again," declared the pent-up longing for sheer stockings.

In the postwar period, nylons received abundant public acceptance, but plastics began to lose their reputation as a reliable material. In part, the decline was a technical problem. Many new varieties of plastic were used inappropriately, endowing the material with the idea of shoddiness. At the same time, plastics emerged as a cultural metaphor for superficiality and excess.

Baby boomers amplified the meaning of plastic as counterfeit, and applied the term to personalities as well as to things. "Other-directed" people were seen to have abandoned their essential selves either to the sway of establishment culture or to the charm of fashion. Simultaneously, a slew of trendy therapies suggested that one could, and should, change personality. No wonder Dustin Hoffman looks so dumbfounded in "The Graduate."

While it has not reclaimed its utopian luster, the cultural symbolism of plastics continues today. Meikle points out that malleability, artificiality, and dissolving boundaries - all qualities of plastic - condense society's fondness for and its fear of cyberspace.

Some will argue that Meikle's lengthy sections on the chemistry and marketing of plastics indulge an admiration for the entrepreneurial American spirit at the expense of insightful cultural history. Be that as it may, "American Plastics" offers an overdue examination of the interplay between culture and industry.

*Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse University, New York.

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