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National Museum of American History Showcases Two New Exhibits
Celluloid, the world’s first commercially successful plastic, was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869.

WASHINGTON, DC.- The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is featuring more than a century of toy history in a history highlights case, “Toys from the Attic.” Showcasing toys from 1825 to 1939, the case explores the changing experience of an American middle-class child. With the improving economy of the 19th century, children were sent to school rather than to work, and adults began to understand the distinct importance of childhood and its specific needs. These changes allowed American children time to play and encouraged greater demand for manufactured toys. Toy companies began to create evermore sophisticated toys intended to entertain, educate and prepare children for adulthood.

The case highlights more than 30 physically and mentally stimulating toys, including an 1890s’ swimming doll, an early 20th-century tricycle and a 1908 children’s carpet sweeper. It examines manufacturers’ methods of toy innovation, such as moveable parts, as well as the history of toy marketing, including its shift to targeting children directly and the selling of toys in “wish lists,” catalogs and department stores. “Toys from the Attic” demonstrates how greater public demand led to the more affordable mass-production of toys, such as alphabet blocks and children’s sewing machines, which would supplement education and prepare children for adult life.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s newest historical highlight case features “Celluloid: The First Plastic.” The case explores the many uses of celluloid and its contribution to the plastics industry in America and features a variety of objects, ranging from picture frames and postcards made in the 1890s to advertising calendars and toy animals from the 1940s. The objects came from Norman and Dadie Perlov, who donated 2,000 celluloid objects from their private collection to the museum in 2006.

Celluloid, the world’s first commercially successful plastic, was invented by John Wesley Hyatt in 1869. Hyatt originally invented celluloid to be used as a substitute for ivory in the manufacturing of billiard balls. Celluloid soon became common in the manufacturing of other items, such as cutlery sets, baby rattles, jewelry and table-tennis balls because of its inexpensive but highly durable qualities. Celluloid was the foundation that led to the development of the plastics manufacturing industry in America; however, its highly inflammable qualities made it hazardous to produce and the manufacture of most celluloid products ceased by the 1940s. Today celluloid is only used in the production of table-tennis balls, for which a successful substitute material has not been discovered.

National Museum of American History | Washington | "Celluloid: The First Plastic" |

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