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  • Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel
  • Joseph A. Amato
Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. By Susan Freinkel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 324 pp.).

Everyday histories bear the stamp of the schools of history from which they originate. They can span a whole horizon reaching from material to social history to culture histories with their construction of the popular mind. Material histories must introduce the tools, goods, clothing, and dwellings of a people, they must place things in the context of values, customs, fashions, and sensibilities which determine their use and value. Likewise, material histories must describe the makers of goods but also identify the localities, regions, and commerce that exchanged them.

Essential to everyday history is a literal description of the materials from which things were made and by which they were assessed in value. We need, for instance, to acknowledge in antiquity the role of bronze, which outfitted [End Page 811] Goliath in his meeting with David and equipped Homer’s heroic Achaeans before the walls of Troy in the eleventh century B. C. The source and the prestige of material is crucial for sorting out who is who, what is associated with what, and how places are tied together. This is all well done in a 2011 work, Robert Finlay’s The Pilgrim Art, on cultures of porcelain in world history and the prestige Chinese ceramics, which lit the royal hearts and kilns of seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. If we are to touch, feel, and see everyday life, say in a nineteenth-century city, we must recognize the growing role of iron and steel, glass, cement and rubber.

If any single material dominates everyday life in the last four decades of the twentieth century it was plastics and the polymers. This is made abundantly and imaginatively clear by Susan Freinkel’s Plastics. Polymers’ chains form an endless list of products and invite a narrative of twentieth century atomic molecular creation. Plastic has put a fresh face of the common and ordinary. It has materialized a new order of democratic abundance and taste.

Plastics are composed from a range of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials known as polymers, which are macromolecules of high molar mass and repeating structures. Derived from the Greek word, plastikos because of their capacity to be molded or shaped, plastics first appeared in the nineteenth century in natural form, like chewing gum, and shellac or chemically modified natural materials like nitrocellulose and rubber, the latter an elastic hydrocarbon polymer found naturally as a colloidal suspension in the sap of some plants was first vulcanized and synthesized under the pressure of Japanese expansion in the Far East.

Starting in the 1920’s, thanks to the synthetic creation of chemistry, from coal tar and then petrochemicals, a long string of polymers came to command the surfaces of our lives. Beginning with Lucite, vinyl, and Bakelite, plastics proved the power of chemistry to transform our environment. Though DuPont first used nylon (a result of the quest for synthetic silk) for the bristles in toothbrushes in the late 1930s, they attracted more attention when they used it to veil women’s attractive legs and strengthen parachutes for flyers.

DuPont’s Velcro, patented in 1955, put people and things under tighter wraps with hooks, loops, snaps, buckles, and zippers. With an array of diverse and even contradictory surfaces, polymers birthed “stickless” Teflon made pots and pans to be stickless, at the same time, and birthed new families of superglues and adhesives. DuPont’s second nylon Kevlar, profoundly light and much stronger than steel, went on to form the shells and hulls of boats and much more. In turn, the chemical industry used polymers to form waterproof fabrics, time-release capsules for pills, and replacement parts for human bodies.

Omni present! Everywhere alive to touch and eye! Far more than any material, plastic, as Freinkel so colorfully and vividly illustrates, has become the epidermis, the siding and inner lining of our things. Plastic, with a touch of poetry, can be considered the membrane of our lives. In a succession of eight chapters, Freinkel traces the varied chains that in six decades accumulated in Plasticville today...


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pp. 811-814
Launched on MUSE
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