Whilst filing paperwork recently I came across the leaflet for the we have in our collection.
|Elephant stool, Charles and Ray Eames, Vitra, 2012. AIBDC : 006729|
It is a favourite object of mine, and it got me thinking about other elephants we have in our collection. A quick word search in our catalogue told me that we have quite a herd in all sizes and colours, including the pleasingly shaped bottle warmer from the 1970s, the tape dispenser, designed by Julian Brown for Rexite, and a group of wooden maquettes and mock ups for bottles. What these objects have in common, and a number of other elephants in our collection, is that they are all made for children to enjoy.
The appreciation of this wonderful creature is not the preserve of the young, and plastics have played their part in trying to wean us humans off the desire for ivory products. Indeed some of the first attempts to produce a hard plastic in the U.S. came about when the search for an alternative to ivory was sought for making billiard balls. A competition to find that substitute was won by printer John Wesley Hyatt who developed a cellulose nitrate material subsequently known as Celluloid, but although there was a reward of $10,000 it is thought that Hyatt never received it. He did however go on to form the Celluloid Manufacturing Company in 1871. A few years before this, in the UK, Alexander Parkes was also beginning to produce a hard cellulose nitrate substance he called Parkesine. We are lucky enough to be the custodians of a very early example of a Parkesine part of the loan collection of the Plastics Historical Society.
|Snooker ball, Parkesine, 1865. PHSL : PAR 119|
The elephant is depicted on a sample of , a late 19th century cellulose nitrate material manufactured by Daniel Spill at the Ivoride Works, Homerton, London.
|Ivoride sample, Daniel Spill, 1870s circa. PHSL: X12|
Perhaps with the emerging social conscience for animal welfare and the realisation of the need to preserve and protect the elephant rather than exploit it, this material is marketed as a substitute for ivory. It could though be the result of dwindling supplies of ivory and the desire to produce an affordable alternative with acceptable aesthetic appeal that gave rise to its invention.
The elephant is also depicted, along with the turtle, as the trademark Xylonite as domenstrated on this collar, another cellulose nitrate material.
These two characters are the subject of a poem, written by S. Brooks who worked at the British Xylonite factory. The poem was published in the company magazine in 1947 and appears to lament the transition from hand made products to mass production. Quite a mournful tale, but such materials and their production methods have offered an affordable and ethical alternative to ivory and tortoiseshell.
The Old Craftsmen
Whilst resting in my old armchair, and lost in reverie
My thoughts returned to days of long ago.
I was thinking of the Pals I had within the factory –
Old comrades that long since I used to know.
Then a vision rose before my eyes, that filled me with alarm
A vision fit to make me stand and stare.
An Elephant and Tortoise were standing arm in arm
They surely were an ill-assorted pair.
I watched them wander through the shops, their faces showed dismay
They were startled by the changes they could see
So I followed close behind them, to hear what they would say
On the progress of the Plastics Industry.
At last they reached Shop 50 – the injection mouldings floor
Their faces showed their agony of mind
As they watched the giant Lesters turning combs out by the score
No liking for such methods could they find.
“That’s progress,” said the Tortoise, “That’s progress, don’t you see?”
But the Elephant in anger shouted loud,
“You call that progress, brother, don’t talk such rot to me.”
And the Tortoise he just sorrowfully bowed.
“When we were young, O Tortoise, we were craftsmen at our trade”
And the Elephant, he spoke these words with pride,
“Our combs were really works of art, and every comb hand-made,
We were masters of our trade, can’t be denied.
“We fashioned combs of Tortoiseshell, and Ivory Celluloid
A credit to our skill without a doubt,
“That’s why this so-called progress doesn’t leave me overjoyed,
These things aren’t made they’re only squirted out.”
The two old craftsmen wandered off, with footsteps none too strong
Dead sure that their opinions were right –
Two very gallant Gentlemen, whose memories were long –
And the vision slowly faded from my sight.
Pam Langdown, (Collections Manager)