Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Plastics & the home front


MoDiP’s latest exhibition Plastics & the home front accompanies Dazzle & The Art of Defence currently on display in TheGallery until 25th April 2019. With the main exhibition concentrating on the military aspect of defence, MoDiP wanted to explore the museum’s plastics collections from the perspective of life at home. Our pop-up exhibition features three themes: Keep calm and carry on looks at the in-it-together spirit celebrated within the civilian population, Make do and mend examines objects related to extending the life of clothing and Beauty as duty considers the popular wisdom of the time that being well groomed was a patriotic obligation.
I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you a few of my favourite objects from Plastics & the home front.

Plasfort Helmet. Image credit: MoDiP

Similar in shape to the well-known MKII steel helmet used extensively by the British military throughout the Second World War, this hard plastic substitute was commercially produced for the civilian market. Although steel helmets were initially sold for use in air raids, after Dunkirk all steel was diverted for military use. Enterprising manufacturers came up with various alternatives such as this compression moulded, phenol formaldehyde example. Anecdotal evidence suggests they were quite robust: one report describes a building contractor purchasing several for his men after witnessing the Plasfort ably surviving a blow from the foreman’s sledgehammer! Rubber chin-strap versions were sold for use in munitions factories.

Darn-a-lite. Image credit: MoDiP

The repair of clothing has been an important skill throughout history and aids such as darning eggs or mushrooms made a neat repair easier by keeping the material stretched and taught. Throughout the Second World War darning thread was unrationed and readily available and this Darn-a-lite, dated to the same period, contains a small bulb and reflector within the green, urea formaldehyde top. Illuminating the fabric repair would have been particularly useful during the blackout or in an air raid shelter but unfortunately the batteries required for the power were in short supply for most of the war. When I was a child I recall that my grandmother had one of these which I was allowed to play with and MoDiP has both the yellow and green versions in the collection.

Clip-on broochesImage credit: MoDiP

Housewife magazine reported that ‘looking better on less is going to be our duty in 1942’ and a wartime memo from the Ministry of Supply stated that make-up was as important to women as tobacco was to men! Wearing make-up was seen as a patriotic duty, adding a much-needed dash of glamour and as increasing numbers of women were required to wear their hair tied back under caps or helmets at work, hairstyles also became an important way to express individuality. As clothing became more plain and serviceable, accessories were commonly used to change an outfit from day to day. Jewellery, such as these phenolic, clip-on brooches, provided an accent of rich, glossy colour. They have a dress clip fastening at the back with small prongs to attach to the clothing as opposed to a pin stem.

To see these objects and other home front plastics such as the British Restaurant tokens, visit the pop-up exhibition at the Museum of Design in Plastics (MoDiP) on the first floor of the AUB library, running until 25th April 2019.

Katherine Pell, Museum Collections Officer.

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