The people who made plastics history have a compelling story to tell

Tales of the plastics pioneers

Plastics history booksThe former National Plastics Center and Museum, once housed in Leominster, MA, has a new home in Syracuse University’s library, and the many artifacts and documents amassed over the years tell a great story of the history of plastics. But we need more stories of the people and the companies they built that put plastics at the forefront of modern science and culture. As Glenn Beall, Chairman of the Plastics Pioneers Association’s Plastics History & Artifacts Committee, recently commented, quoting poet Jim Harrison: “Death steals everything except our stories.”

Our stories are important, primarily because the present rests on those stories that help to create the future of the industry and those who work in it. One of my favorite memories was traveling around the state of Mississippi with Jim Hemphill, Sr., doing plant tours at various injection molding facilities, from large plants such as Delphi to small family-owned businesses. In between tours, the time we spent driving was filled with Jim’s stories of his history in the plastics industry. I was struck by how much he loved the industry.

Jim also had boxes of newspaper clippings about his injection molding company, which he started back in the 1950s when he brought an injection molding machine to Mississippi from Ohio in the back seat of his car. I encouraged him to put together a book of his life in plastics, which he worked on tirelessly, finishing it shortly before his death in April 2012 at the age of 89. His self-published history, 1951 to 2009: 58 Years, Good and Bad, We Tell it All, is an extensive tome of his life in the plastics industry. Between the leather-bound covers of this book is a nearly 400-page history of how Jim found a career and made it his life’s work.

He spent his “retirement” years working for the Society of Plastics Engineers, rounding up speakers for the monthly meetings (that’s how I got invited to Mississippi). His dedication to the education community included a close affiliation with Holmes Community College and helping get equipment it needed to develop a plastics program; the University of Southern Mississippi’s Polymer Institute; and Mississippi State University. I was honored to write a foreword for Jim’s history.

Another history book I cherish is John C. Reib’s The Making of Conair – with some history of auxiliary equipment for plastics processors. John sent me a signed copy of his self-published book, which has a foreword by Glenn Beall, and it’s a great story! Beginning in the 1940s, the book is part history and part technical manual, hardbound in a beautiful maroon cover. Reading the book you come to understand that the same financial and customer challenges we have today were also present 30 or 40 years ago.

In a chapter called “The Recovery,” Reib talks about the 1982 recession, which was tough to weather. But the lessons learned then are valuable even today. His business acumen was evident in his chapter on “Bankers,” something every business owner has to deal with in establishing a company.  My personal favorite chapter is titled “The Airplanes,” (because I love flying and have had a few lessons), in which John tells of an emergency landing after an engine failure after a day spent flying around making sales calls. What a treat this book was to read!

Richard “Dick” Landis’ The History of Landis Plastics – 1954-2003 (self-published, 2007), was a great time for me because I had the privilege of working with Dick on this year-long book project. It’s also a book filled with airplane tales, interesting projects that included plastic wall tiles (popular in the 1950s) and how ceramic wall tiles from Italy ruined that business. But luckily, plastic coffee can lids were also thin and flat, and that became a really big hit in the 1960s as a way to keep coffee fresh.

The company was a true custom molder. In the early days, it molded everything from three-piece Daisy flower pots to an attempt at a plastic bowling pin. The flower pot customer, who was in Pasadena, CA, loved the result so much that he sent Dick and his wife tickets to the upcoming Rose Bowl game and to the Rose Parade. The plastic bowling pin didn’t fare as well. Finally, Landis Plastics hit it big in food packaging, growing the company into a multi-plant operation, molding and thermoforming containers and lids for some of the biggest brand owners in the country. That made it an attractive acquisition for Berry Plastics, which bought the company in 2003.

Beall believes—and I agree with him—that “the plastics industry has been negligent in allowing many of the industry’s pioneers to pass on without capturing and preserving their personal stories and those of the companies they created.” There is a lot we can learn from these stories of the men and women who helped build the industry, and it’s my wish that many more of you in the industry will tell your story, if for no other reason, than to share the history that helps us to understand our industry roots and build a better future.

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