David Futrelle reviews Stephen Fenichell's book "Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century".

Published July 16, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

In the 1960s and '70s, plastic served as an omnipresent symbol of all that was wrong with western civilization -- a culture at once wasteful, prefabricated and just plain tacky. "I sometimes think there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer," Norman Mailer once remarked, "and it's plastic."

Plastic is no longer such a convenient villain. "After decades in the doghouse, plastic has come back with a vengeance," Stephen Fenichell writes in "Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century." "With remarkable resiliency and pliability appropriate to its protean nature, plastic has cunningly mutated back into our good graces in recent years." Nature-lovers adorn themselves in clothing made from recycled plastic and carry their refillable plastic mugs with pride. Even Mailer seems to have come around, contributing a kind blurb to the back cover of this more or less plastic-friendly volume.

Fenichell's book offers an informal history of the plastic age, from the debut of Parkesine in the 1860s ("HARD as IVORY, TRANSPARENT or OPAQUE...made of the most BRILLIANT COLORS") to the stealthy return of polyester "microfiber" to the fashion runways today. It's an often engaging book, chronicling the invention of everything from Bakelite to Teflon, the complex legal battles over various plastic patents and the remarkable popular enthusiasm for new plastic products that has erupted again and again over the years. During the cellophane-mania of the 1930s, one Cornell professor began experimentally feeding the material to students -- a strategy that he hoped would allow "fat people desiring to reduce to ingest bulk without calories." (Shades of olestra?) A decade later, near-riots erupted at stores carrying the then-revolutionary nylon stocking. The chemical side of the story, as Fenichell tells it, is one of fortuitous spills and less-than-fortuitous side effects: John Wesley Hyatt discovered the secrets of celluloid after one such spill in 1868 -- but his plans to manufacture celluloid billiard balls were thwarted by the material's tendency to blow up.

But if Fenichell has a good eye for anecdotes, he's not much of an organizer: the book flops haphazardly from topic to topic, with such disregard for chronology that at times I wondered if even Fenichell knew what decade he was covering. And because he is so frustratingly vague in dealing with the environmental effects of our widespread plastic use, one hardly knows whether to take his scattered final chapter as a cautious celebration of plastic's victory or a bittersweet elegy to a material as problematic as it is pliable. Nevertheless, this is an indispensable book for anyone seriously interested in the story of an indispensable material.

By David Futrelle

David Futrelle, a regular Sneak Peeks contributor, has written for The Nation, Newsday, and Lingua Franca.

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