Wednesday, 15 July 2020

My plastics at home: part 1.

Inspired by a blog written by Carla Flack, Sculpture and Installation Art Conservator, Tate, I decided to investigate some of my own plastics at home, to see if I could identify what materials they are made from and (hopefully) find out more about their history. For my first object, I selected this toy piano and stool (see image below), both pieces from a collection of doll’s house furniture originally owned by my Aunt. 

Image ref: A doll’s house piano and stool.
Image credit: K. Pell

I started by examining MoDiP’s online guide to Identifying Plastics. I find this a really useful resource that provides a list of potential materials based on the answers to a series of questions. You can narrow down the possibilities by considering things like when the object was made, what it looks and feels like and whether it has any distinguishing marks.

Image ref: Ejector pin marks (created when the warm moulding was released from its mould) on the bottom of the piano.

My original guess of 1950s polystyrene seemed to bear out: the piano is extremely lightweight, brittle, creates a ‘metallic’ sound when tapped and has visible injection moulding marks underneath (see image below).

It is also possible to see the gate (where the molten plastic entered the mould) and how the material flowed – excuse the colour discrepancies in my photography!

Image ref: (left) the injection moulding ‘gate’, (right) the gate is at the bottom of the photo and you can see how the material flowed into the mould.
Image credit: K.Pell

Next, I wanted to find out more about who had made the object and, rather conveniently, they had signed their name on the sheet music (see image below). An online search resulted in my finding an article written about Kleeware by Percy Reboul, published in the Plastiquarian, the journal of the Plastics Historical Society.

Image ref: The piano was made by Kleeware.
Image credit: K.Pell

I was able to ascertain that this company was founded in 1938, initially producing cellulose acetate combs and phenol and urea formaldehyde ashtrays using the trade name Kabroloid and later, Kleeware. They made radio components for the Ministry of Defence during WWII and afterwards expanded their range to include small toys and dolls which were sold to Woolworths and exported around the world. In 1959, the company was sold to Rosedale Plastics, a rival toy manufacturer.

I also found some great advertisements including these two below, referencing the actual plastics materials used in the production of these toys.

Image ref: (left) 1949 advert for Kleeware doll's house furniture, (right) 1952 advert for the British Industries' Fair
Image credit: and

It seems that plagiarism was common amongst toy manufacturers in the immediate post-war years and many, including Kleeware, were known to have ‘borrowed’ designs from other companies. That makes it particularly difficult to try and identify information when they did not brand their products. I am so glad my Aunt looked after her toys so well, preserving the paper sheet music that could so easily have become detached and which provided a vital clue.

If you would like to try and find out some more about your own plastics objects, why not start with MoDiP’s curator’s guide, which explains what plastics are and how to go about identifying them. We’d love to hear how you get on. 

Katherine Pell, Museum Collections Officer.




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