While celluloid would prove a wonderful substitute for ivory, Hyatt apparently never collected the ten-thousand-dollar prize. Perhaps that's because celluloid didn't make very good billiard balls—at least not at first. It lacked the bounce and resilience of ivory, and it was highly volatile. The first balls Hyatt made produced a loud crack, like a shotgun blast, when they knocked into each other. One Colorado saloonkeeper wrote Hyatt that "he didn't mind, but every time the balls collided, every man in the room pulled a gun."
However, it was an ideal material for combs. As Hyatt noted in one of his early patents, celluloid transcended the deficiencies that plagued many traditional comb materials. When it got wet, it didn't get slimy, like wood, or corrode, like metal. It didn't turn brittle, like rubber, or become cracked and discolored, like natural ivory. "Obviously none of the other materials . . . would produce a comb possessing the many excellent qualities and inherent superiorities of a comb made of celluloid," Hyatt wrote in one of his patent applications. And while it was sturdier and steadier than most natural materials, it could, with effort, be made to look like many of them.
Celluloid could be rendered with the rich creamy hues and striations of the finest tusks from Ceylon, a faux material marketed as French Ivory. It could be mottled in browns and ambers to emulate tortoiseshell; traced with veining to look like marble; infused with the bright colors of coral, lapis lazuli, or carnelian to resemble those and other semiprecious stones; or blackened to look like ebony or jet. Celluloid made it possible to produce counterfeits so exact that they deceived "even the eye of the expert," as Hyatt's company boasted in one pamphlet. "As petroleum came to the relief of the whale," the pamphlet stated, so "has celluloid given the elephant, the tortoise, and the coral insect a respite in their native haunts; and it will no longer be necessary to ransack the earth in pursuit of substances which are constantly growing scarcer."
Celluloid appeared at a time when the country was changing from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. Where once people had grown and prepared their own food and made their own clothes, increasingly they were eating, drinking, wearing, and using things that came from factories. We were fast on our way to becoming a country of consumers. Celluloid was the first of the new materials that would level the playing field for consumption, as historian Jeffrey Meikle pointed out in his insightful cultural history American Plastic. "By replacing materials that were hard to find or expensive to process, celluloid democratized a host of goods for an expanding consumption- oriented middle class." Ample supplies of celluloid allowed manufacturers to keep up with rapidly rising demand while also keeping costs down. Like other plastics that would follow, celluloid offered a means for Americans to buy their way into new stations in life.
Perhaps celluloid's greatest impact was serving as the base for photographic film. Here celluloid's gift for facsimile achieved its ultimate expression, the complete transmutation of reality into illusion, as three-dimensional flesh-and-blood beings were transformed into two-dimensional ghosts shimmering on a screen. Here, too, celluloid had a powerful leveling effect in several ways. Film offered a new kind of entertainment, available to and shared by the masses. A dime bought anyone an afternoon of drama, romance, action, escape. Audiences from Seattle to New York roared at the antics of Buster Keaton and thrilled to hear Al Jolson speak the first words in a talkie: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet." The mass culture of film reeled across class, ethnic, racial, and regional lines, drawing one and all into shared stories and imbuing us with the sense that reality itself is as changeable and ephemeral as the names on the movie marquee. With film, an old elite was dethroned; the glamour once associated with class and social standing was now possible for anyone with good cheekbones, some talent, and a bit of luck.