Ironically, the world opened by celluloid film nearly killed the celluloid- comb industry. In 1914, Irene Castle, a ballroom dancer turned movie star, decided to cut her long hair into a short bob, prompting female fans across the country to take scissors to their own hair. Nowhere did those shorn locks fall harder than in Leominster, Massachusetts, which had been the country's comb capital since before the Revolutionary War and which was now the cradle of the celluloid industry, much of it devoted to combs. Nearly overnight, half of the comb companies in town were forced to shut down, throwing thousands of comb makers out of work. Sam Foster, owner of Foster Grant, one of the town's leading celluloid-comb companies, told his workers not to worry. "We'll make something else," he assured them. He hit on the idea of making sunglasses, creating an entirely new mass market. "Who's that behind those Foster Grants?" the company later teased in ads that featured photographs of celebrities such as Peter Sellers, Mia Farrow, and Raquel Welch hidden behind dark lenses. With a quick trip to the local drugstore, anyone could acquire the same glamorous mystique.
For all its significance, celluloid had a fairly modest place in the material world of the early twentieth century, limited mainly to novelties and small decorative and utilitarian items, like the comb. Making things from celluloid was a labor-intensive process; combs were molded in small batches and still had to be sawed and polished by hand. And because the material was so volatile, the factories were like tinderboxes. Workers often labored under a constant spray of water, but fires were still common. It wasn't until the development of more cooperative polymers that plastics truly began to transform the look, feel, and quality of our lives. By the 1940s, we had both the plastics and the machines to mass-produce plastic products. Injection-molding machines—now standard equipment in plastics manufacturing—turned raw plastic powders or pellets into a molded, finished product in a one-shot process. A single machine equipped with a mold containing multiple cavities could pop out ten fully formed combs in less than a minute.
DuPont, which bought one of the original celluloid companies in Leominster, released photos in the mid-1930s showing the daily output of a father-and-son pair of comb makers. In the photos, the father is standing next to a tidy stack of three hundred and fifty celluloid combs, while ten thousand injection-molded combs surround the son. And although a single celluloid comb cost one dollar in 1930, by the end of the decade one could buy a machine-molded comb of cellulose acetate for anywhere from a dime to fifty cents. With the rise of mass-production plastics, the fanciful decorative combs and faux ivory dresser sets so popular in the celluloid era gradually disappeared. Combs were now stripped down to the most essential elements—teeth and handle—in service of their most basic function.
Bakelite, the first truly synthetic plastic, a polymer forged entirely in the lab, paved the way for successes like that of DuPont's injection-mold-comb-making son. As with celluloid, Bakelite was invented to replace a scarce natural substance: shellac, a product of the sticky excretions of the female lac beetle. Demand for shellac began shooting up in the early twentieth century because it was an excellent electrical insulator. Yet it took fifteen thousand beetles six months to make enough of the amber-colored resin needed to produce a pound of shellac. To keep up with the rapid expansion of the electrical industry, something new was needed.
As it turned out, the plastic Leo Baekeland invented by combining formaldehyde with phenol, a waste product of coal, and subjecting the mixture to heat and pressure was infinitely more versatile than shellac. Though it could, with effort, be made to mimic natural materials, it didn't have celluloid's knack for imitation. Instead, it had a powerful identity of its own, which helped encourage the development of a distinctively plastic look. Bakelite was a dark-colored, rugged material with a sleek, machinelike beauty, "as stripped down as a Hemingway sentence," in writer Stephen Fenichell's words. Unlike celluloid, Bakelite could be precisely molded and machined into nearly anything, from tubular industrial bushings the size of mustard seeds to full-size coffins. Contemporaries hailed its "protean adaptability" and marveled at how Baekeland had transformed something as foul-smelling and nasty as coal tar—long a discard in the coking process—into this wondrous new substance.