Plastics Pioneers Association supports preservation of plastics history at Syracuse University

Knowing the history of plastics is important to the future of the industry. The Plastics Artifacts Collection was accumulated originally by the National Plastics Center & Museum (NPCM) in Leominster, MA. In 2008, the collection of artifacts, histories and biographies, books and magazines that was formerly housed at the NPCM was moved to the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University.

Courtney Asztalos
Plastics Pioneers Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts, Courtney Asztalos.

Over a year ago, the Syracuse University libraries received an endowment  to hire the Plastics Pioneers Curator of Plastics and Historical Artifacts, Courtney Asztalos. At the recent fall meeting (Sept. 27 to 30) of the Plastics Pioneers Association in Louisville, KY, Asztalos gave a presentation and update of the collection.

There are currently more than 3,000 plastics artifacts at SU’s Special Collections Research Center. “These artifacts are absolutely incredible,” commented Asztalos in her update to the group, noting that they are “cultural treasures.” 

Some of the activity taking place includes rehousing of artifacts, such as an extensive hair comb collection, in specifically designed boxes that are now made in-house at SU to make the artifacts easier to find in storage and to put on display. The center is embarking on a collaboration with faculty and students from SU’s chemistry department using Raman spectroscopy to non-invasively identify the various plastic materials from which the artifacts are made. This collaboration will strengthen SCRC’s strategy for the long-term preservation of the artifacts based on their chemical makeup.

Bakelite dresser set
This Bakelite dresser set from the late 1800s belonged to Clare Goldsberry's great-grandmother. It is not part of the Plastics Artifacts Collection.

Included in the plastics collection are numerous textbooks on the chemistry and processing of various plastic materials; magazines such as numerous issues of Modern Plastics, one of the oldest technical publications ever produced and the precursor of PlasticsToday; biographies of many of the people whose involvement helped build the industry, as well as company histories. In addition to the extensive comb collection, artifacts also include toys, dishes, housewares, medical equipment, automotive components, material samples and much more.

The Special Collections Research Center is open to the public and researchers. Local schools and organizations have visited the Plastics Pioneers Reading Room, where they were introduced to many plastics artifacts on display. At SU this fall semester, there are a total of six different courses that are using the plastics collection as a “teaching tool,” including chemistry in the modern world and advanced photography, explained Asztalos. 

Currently, the plastics collection website is still being updated with the digitization of artifacts and other helpful information. The Plastics Pioneers Reading Room is a gift of long-time Plastics Pioneer Association member Glenn Beall and his late wife Patsy. Anyone wanting to reach out to the Plastics Collection at the Special Collections Research Center should email [email protected].

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