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Celluloid - Facts and Cleaning Tips

John Wesley Hyatt, 1837-1920, was an accomplished inventor who spent years searching for a suitable substitute for ivory.  Hyatt discovered the solvent reaction of camphor on cellulose nitrate, when under moderate heat and pressure.  This colorless, synthetic plastic was widely used in place of ivory, amber, horn, and tortoiseshell.

This new material shaped the nucleus of the celluloid business.  Hence, celluloid was born in 1870.  In 1872, Hyatt changed his company's name to the Celluloid Manufacturing Company and in 1873 the company moved to a larger premises in Newark, New Jersey.

Celluloid items include baby rattles, hair ornaments, pens, collar buttons, photo albums, brush and knife handles, postcard and wedding albums, prayer books, dentures, frames, toothbrushes, jewelry, clocks, match safes, buttons, and billiard balls to name a few.

The celluloid albums and boxes were primarily made between 1892 and 1915.  Beautiful images of seductive Art Nouveau ladies, romantic couples, playful children, celestial cherubs, astounding floral displays and serene landscapes make these Victorian treasures so very desirable.

Manufacturers embellished these albums with embossed raised designs, hand painted details, intricate hardware, elaborate velvet coverings, gold gilt highlights and on occasion, special artwork to some of the interior pages.  Besides the more recognized book shape, several styles of albums were designed and include the stand-up albums, the rarer musical examples and the long shapely rectangular shapes.


 



 

During the late 1800s, these albums were priced between 50 cents and $7 each, however today, collectors will pay many hundreds of dollars to purchase an album or box found in excellent or mint condition.  It is not unusual to see the musical or long albums selling for $600.00 and up and the stand-up album at over $500.00, in exquisite condition of course.

Treasure hunters can still find better prices if they are willing to overlook small, inconspicuous damage or a little wear and age showing, after all, these pieces are at least 100 years old.  We always recommend purchasing pieces in better condition and you should stay away from celluloid that has significant cracking, exterior tearing or holes.

When your celluloid album or box is in very fine or excellent condition without cracks, peeling or holes, it can be gently cleaned.  A damp, soft, clean, cotton cloth can used to wipe off surface dust and dirt build up.  No chemical abrasives should be used.  Very little mild soap can be applied to your soft cloth, at your own discretion, making sure your cloth is never dripping or too wet.  I have cleaned many albums and boxes but they are always in very fine condition to start with.  I cover my thumb nail with a layer or two of my damp/wet soft cotton cloth and it usually has just a tad bit of mild soap on it.  I gently and carefully work my nail around the areas to be cleaned, moving the cloth often to a cleaner spot as it accumulates dirt.  You will be surprised at how much grime will lift out of those deeper embossed areas.  Great care should be given if any areas have been hand painted or gold gilt highlighted.  You can still clean but apply less pressure in those areas.  Keep in mind that celluloid can crack if you press too hard.

If your celluloid piece is not in such nice condition, even more delicate care must be taken when attempting to clean, too much dampness could cause more problems like staining or lifting.  Store your celluloid away from heat, radiators, moisture, direct sunlight and freezing temperatures should also be avoided.  Well care for pieces will endure your lifetime and become precious heirloom remembrances.  



 
 

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