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Celluloid... What Does It Matter?


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#1 Inkling13

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Posted 15 January 2018 - 16:54

Something I've come across in my time here at FPN, is that there seems to be a camp admonishing anything called "Celluloid" that isn't cellulose nitrate. At the same time, we marvel at the durability of Esterbrook's celluloid, which through my many searches, seem to find that it isn't even cellulose nitrate. It doesn't behave like cellulose nitrate, doesn't age like it, doesn't change like it, and is certainly more bulletproof compared to any nitrate. From all my searches, it seems that it's most likely a form of cellulose acetate, yet despite being not the true celluloid, we still love them. Is it just me? Who cares truly if it is acetate vs nitrate? 



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#2 Tweel

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Posted 15 January 2018 - 17:31

Well, one can like both dogs and cats, but it might elicit a correction if you called a dog a cat.


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#3 praxim

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Posted 15 January 2018 - 22:07

Naming of materials is all over the shop, for which one can blame marketing and unwarranted assumptions.

 

"Cellluloid" (originally invented as Parkesine, it appears) is, along with cellulose acetate, a bioplastic based on cellulose (wood) fibres. Most plastics are petroleum-based. To adapt Tweel's analogy, cellulose nitrate and cellulose acetate are two breeds of dog with quite different behaviours and characteristic smells, while almost everything else is a cat. Chemists may wish to add comments here.

 

I read that Esterbrook used acetate from early in their history.

 

Returning to my opening paragraph, I think it pretty pointless these days to try to be "correct" about the use of commercial names where these are marketing terms for underlying chemical formulations which themselves have variations of process. I could say that I have many pens made from rayon. :)


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#4 inkstainedruth

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 02:13

Well, it's better than the Parker Vacumatic Maxima I saw in an antiques mall a couple of years ago which was listed by the booth holder as being made of Bakelite....  :rolleyes: 

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#5 Tweel

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 02:16

"Bakelite" seems to be a favorite of unknowledgeable sellers.


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#6 Greenie

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 19:12

Many people assume all old plastic is Bakelite.  To be sure, there are Bakelite pens as well, but they are not common. Hudson pens, large Presto flat tops, and some (but only some, not all) of the Ingersoll twist fillers.

 

But this is a digression.

 

Personally, I like the feel of celluloid, whether or not it is more "typical" or that found on Esterbrook.

 

Now one has to decide if language is prescriptive/fixed or descriptive/living.  In the real world, all language is descriptive, so if many people call both materials "celluloid," then they are both celluloid, regardless of purists, chemists, and material historian desires to preserve older nomenclature.

 

Here are the pen nuthouse we debate these things all the time!  IMHO, the outcome of the debates never matters, but the process can be fun. I feel bad for those who take nomenclature too seriously. Life has enough "real" stresses that we should keep hobbies fun!



#7 LanceSaintPaul

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 19:25

I think the importance of a proper definition is directly related to one's desire to avoid opening up a prized box to find a heap of crystals in its place, rather than the thing of beauty one hunted for. This is the consequential part.



#8 Ron Z

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 19:42

OTOH,  knowing what the material is makes a difference when  you go to repair it, or consider repairing it, because different materials react differently to different solvents and adhesives, so it does matter.  Soak a casein pen when you thought you had polystyrene, and you have a mess. 


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#9 praxim

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 21:18

I think the importance of a proper definition is directly related to one's desire to avoid opening up a prized box to find a heap of crystals in its place, rather than the thing of beauty one hunted for. This is the consequential part.

 

Common naming is inimical to knowledge. Think of celluloid as a brand, not a material, then figure out the material when needed. Trying to enforce definitions founded on commonplace terms will be a quixotic venture. See my thread about sensible definitions for "vintage". :)


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#10 Greenie

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Posted 16 January 2018 - 23:33

OTOH,  knowing what the material is makes a difference when  you go to repair it, or consider repairing it, because different materials react differently to different solvents and adhesives, so it does matter.  Soak a casein pen when you thought you had polystyrene, and you have a mess. 

 

Ron is (of course!) 100% correct, but we are discussing celluloid vs types (subtypes?) of cellulosic plastics.  These "cellul-oids" are basically handled, cleaned, etc the same way, and not at all like needing to know the different qualities of Bakelite vs casein vs celluloid.  

 

In collecting, we also tend to have "lumpers and splitters".  And you will never resolve the differences, because both are totally correct in their own ways.  Splitters are correct that cellulose acetate is not cellulose nitrate.  They are just not the same thing.   Lumpers are correct that both are cellul - "oid" thermoplastics, transparent, shape-able and dye-able. (like sci-fi fans can discuss human-oid aliens, not at all implying that they are human, but acknowledging certain commonalities to human form).  And "celluloid" is so much easier to say than "cellulosic plastics of the two varieties we typically encounter in vintage fountain pens". 

 

So, some of us use "celluloid" as we might use the word "kleenex" or "vaseline." The fact that they are brands does not diminish the fact that most people know that the brand name is used generically for a range of products that have a lot of similarities.

 

[and I will be a troublemaker by bringing up "vintage" and "demonstrator", let alone what qualifies as a "fountain pen"]  

 

 

Fun science link:

 

Here is a link for those who want to "nerd out" regarding different cellulosic plastics

 

http://what-when-how...ulose-plastics/


Edited by Greenie, 16 January 2018 - 23:35.


#11 Ron Z

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Posted 17 January 2018 - 00:14

True, we can lump them together.  But I think that the difference comes too in how we care for the material.  Nitrocellulose is much more vulnerable, especially the pre-war German celluloids.  You have to take more care in heating it and storing it, and the way that I handle it when working on a pen is different. Cellulose acetate is less vulnerable, more robust if you will, so you don't have to be as careful.  I love Esterbrooks for their durability, (OK, I love Esterbrooks)  but I don't think of them as being made of "celluloid" because they are so different in feel than Parkers and Sheaffers.


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#12 Greenie

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Posted 17 January 2018 - 02:59

I would propose that if you treat all celluloids the same, i.e. with the same care as for cellulose nitrate, it is a safe thing to do. But not true of celluloid(s)  vs. casein, bakelite, hard rubber.

 

That is why I am a lumper and not a splitter!  



#13 MarcShiman

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Posted 20 January 2018 - 02:43

A bit of history about the two...

 

LeBeouf was the first company to use a thermoplastic in making pens in the early 1920s. The better known part of the story goes on that Parker and Sheaffer starting using cellulose nitrate in the mid-20's and rapidly other brands followed.

 

Cellulose Acetate was well developed and in use before the 1920s. Importantly, it was considerably safer to work with than those set with nitrates. I've tried to figure out why pens didn't skip straight to cellulose acetate, (film had already transitioned by that point). I've heard a few theories, the most likely was that cellulose nitrate was much cheaper. I've also heard that certain types of cellulose acetate were really water permeable which would have made them easy to stain. 

 

Cellulose Nitrate relied on a single plasticizer - camphor (eventually, they were able to sythesize it). Cellulose acetate, on the other hand, had a number of different possible plasticizers, and it the different varieties had different properties (and uses) I'd bet.

 

Bakelite, casein, hard rubber, and others were thermosetting plastics. Hard rubber a plastic? Actually, the definition of plastic was any material meant to be shaped into something. Wood is a plastic by that definition. Thermosetting meant that it was heated to shape it, and it set that way. 

 

In the mid 20's, there were 4 cellulose nitrate manufacturers in the US, one in Massachussets, the rest in NJ. Of the two major ones, one left cellulose nitrate to go into rayon in the late 20's. If you have a celluloid pen from the 30's, you'd very likely be right if you guessed the celluloid was made by Dupont under the brand Pyralin.

 

Alternatively, cellulose acetate was made by dozens of companies with different brand names (and different forumlations). Perhaps Esterbrook stumbled on the right supplier of plastic.

 

It would seem that pens largely skipped cellulose acetate and went straight into injection-molded thermosetting plastics, which would have been much more cost effective to fabricate, particularly in the the popular streamlined shapes. Being that we were still in a financial depression, I'm sure cost was an overriding factor in the choice of material.

 

For the most part, care of the two materials is similar (and the Esterbrook material was certainly more robust) - but I think solvents would be different for the two. There may have been other pens made from cellulose acetate during the 30's, and you can test them by burning shavings (somewhere I saw a color table of what color the flames would be for different plastics).  


Edited by MarcShiman, 20 January 2018 - 02:44.


#14 MarcShiman

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Posted 20 January 2018 - 03:27

On the name "celluloid", I believe that belonged to The Celluloid Company who's founder was created with inventing the material. The other big company was called Arlington Works, and they were bought by Dupont. I believe they used the brand pyralin (I know Dupont used it). There was also fibroloid, and one other. The Celluloid Company eventually merged and became Celanese and moved to Cumberland, MD to make rayon  slightly before pens made from cellulose nitrate took off. So there are only a few real "celluloid" pens out there, if you want to be completely accurate.



#15 sidthecat

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 03:32

I was watching a show on BBC about the many hazards lurking in the middle-class Victorian house, and the presenters demonstrated the lethality of celluloid, if exposed to an open flame.
It was very impressive - potential arsonists should take note. Strip off the gold first, though.

#16 MarcShiman

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 11:54

New Jersey was, for a period of time, the plastics capital of the world - and during that time there were over 55 major fires in a 40 year period.

 

By "major", we speak of entire city blocks razed to the ground.

 

The saddest, perhaps was Nixon, an early supplier of Sheaffer Radite. Nixon, quite unfortunately, was located next to a warehouse storing spent artillery shells. You could probably write the rest of that story quite accurately from that point....



#17 dennis_f

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 15:02

New Jersey was, for a period of time, the plastics capital of the world - and during that time there were over 55 major fires in a 40 year period.

 

By "major", we speak of entire city blocks razed to the ground.

 

The saddest, perhaps was Nixon, an early supplier of Sheaffer Radite. Nixon, quite unfortunately, was located next to a warehouse storing spent artillery shells. You could probably write the rest of that story quite accurately from that point....

 

When would that have been? 



#18 MarcShiman

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 15:39

 

When would that have been? 

 

https://en.wikipedia..._Works_disaster



#19 dennis_f

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 17:57

Pen-related history gets crazier and crazier... who knew.

 

Thanks for sharing.



#20 Tweel

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Posted 25 January 2018 - 19:03

A weird bit for me:

 

Ammonite dissolved in 1926, for reasons attributed to the explosion.[23] Ammonite owner R. Norris Shreve, already a renowned chemical and industrial engineer, later joined the faculty at Purdue University, where he became a well-respected scholar, author, and teacher.[23] A residence hall at Purdue is named in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Shreve.

 

I live in Purdue-town, and am familiar with Shreve Hall.  Maybe P.U. has a minor, unrecognized role as a Hall of Shame: the head engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, Charles Ellis, lost credit for his design to his boss, who then fired him -- and he found a job teaching at Purdue.


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