At least, that was the hopeful vision of a pair of British chemists writing on the eve of World War II. "Let us try to imagine a dweller in the 'Plastic Age,'" Victor Yarsley and Edward Couzens wrote. "This 'Plastic Man' will come into a world of colour and bright shining surfaces...a world in which man, like a magician, makes what he wants for almost every need." They envisioned him growing up and growing old surrounded by unbreakable toys, rounded corners, unscuffable walls, warpless windows, dirt-proof fabrics, and lightweight cars and planes and boats. The indignities of old age would be lessened with plastic glasses and dentures until death carried the plastic man away, at which point he would be buried "hygienically enclosed in a plastic coffin."
That world was delayed in coming. Most of the new plastics discovered in the 1930s were monopolized by the military over the course of World War II. Eager to conserve precious rubber, for instance, in 1941 the U.S. Army put out an order that all combs issued to servicemen be made of plastic instead of hard rubber. So every member of the armed forces, from private to general, in white units and black, got a five-inch black plastic pocket comb in his "hygiene kit." Of course, plastics were also pressed into far more significant service, used for mortar fuses, parachutes, aircraft components, antenna housing, bazooka barrels, enclosures for gun turrets, helmet liners, and countless other applications. Plastics were even essential to the building of the atomic bomb: Manhattan Project scientists relied on Teflon's supreme resistance to corrosion to make containers for the volatile gases they used. Production of plastics leaped during the war, nearly quadrupling from 213 million pounds in 1939 to 818 million pounds in 1945.
Come V-J Day, however, all that production potential had to go somewhere, and plastics exploded into consumer markets. (Indeed, as early as 1943, DuPont had a whole division at work preparing prototypes of housewares that could be made of the plastics then commandeered for the war.) Just months after the war's end, thousands of people lined up to get into the first National Plastics Exposition in New York, a showcase of the new products made possible by the plastics that had proven themselves in the war. For a public weary of two decades of scarcity, the show offered an exciting and glittering preview of the promise of polymers. There were window screens in every color of the rainbow that would never need to be painted. Suitcases light enough to lift with a finger, but strong enough to carry a load of bricks. Clothing that could be wiped clean with a damp cloth. Fishing line as strong as steel. Clear packaging materials that would allow a shopper to see if the food inside was fresh. Flowers that looked like they'd been carved from glass. An artificial hand that looked and moved like the real thing. Here was the era of plenty that the hopeful British chemists had envisioned. "Nothing can stop plastics," the chairman of the exposition crowed.
All those ex-GIs with their standard-issue combs were coming home to a world of not only material abundance but also rich opportunities created by the GI Bill, housing subsidies, favorable demographics, and an economic boom that left Americans with an unprecedented level of disposable income. Plastics production expanded explosively after the war, with a growth curve that was steeper than even the fast-rising GNP's. Thanks to plastics, newly flush Americans had a never-ending smorgasbord of affordable goods to choose from. The flow of new products and applications was so constant it was soon the norm. Tupperware had surely always existed, alongside Formica counters, Naugahyde chairs, red acrylic taillights, Saran wrap, vinyl siding, squeeze bottles, push buttons, Barbie dolls, Lycra bras, Wiffle balls, sneakers, sippy cups, and countless more things.