A ramble through domestic history in the 20th Century
Have you spotted the clear plastic chair and table in the centre of the above pictures, as well as the plastic inflatables on the right?
Plastic wasn’t new in the 60s, far from it. Plastics had been around since the start of the century and we’ve all heard of bakelite – a plastic that just shouts 1930s. But, as my 1966 copy of the Ideal Home Householders Guide says, “It has taken an unfairly long time for plastics to become visually sophisticated in colour and design. Because of the cheapness of mass-producing the materials the first objects made in plastics were meant to look cheap and did.” I’d argue that’s not strictly true – early plastics were often made to imitate expensive materials like tortoiseshell or ivory, so not really cheap looking. But it certainly took a while for plastic technology to develop to the point where they were robust enough and made in enough varieties to really flood the home with plastic products. Tupperware, for instance, first began trading in the late 40s, but it took until the 60s for it to cross the Atlantic and reach the UK.
It’s interesting to note that the first plastic electric kettle didn’t appear until the late 70s – and even then it wasn’t a commercial success because of lack of trust in plastic., but generally man-made wasn’t a dirty word in the 60s – and a plastic product didn’t mean cheap. Companies were proud to shout loudly in their advertising about the benefits of the man made materials they contained. With names like Bri-Nylon and Terylene, it’s clear that there was no shame in being man-made.
The advances in plastic technology meant plastic could be used in furniture. The 60s saw a real boom in young designers experimenting with new materials and new techniques and it saw the invention of some serious design classics such as the Panton chair and Kartell storage units.
The picture below is a great one because not only does it show the green plastic coffee table in the foreground, but also, a little detail you might not notice, the venetian blinds at the window are also plastic. No stuffy curtains for this modern design!
However, this kind of extreme modern design was not necessarily what you would have found in the average home. Plastics were perhaps a little more mundane and appearing as practical household items as seen in the black and white picture below, and “unbreakable” melamine dinnerware.
Plastic was also changing the face of the actual decor of the home. The bathroom advert below points out that the Perspex bath is invitingly warm to the touch. It also points out the drop front for ease of getting in and out – that’s another great advantage of plastics, much more flexibility in the shapes that can be made.
Below are another selection of adverts showing the variety of plastic products you could adorn your house with. As with the bath above, a big benefit of plastic was that warmth to the touch compared with traditional materials. Laconite wallboards instead of tile or glass, Vinolay tiles instead of cold tile floor were all easy care and more comfortable to live with.
Not to mention this was the real heyday of polystyrene ceiling tiles. Used for insulation – but they weren’t just practical, they were considered a nice modern looking ceiling – and again labour saving. Looks great, but hides all the cracks and doesn’t need painting. This was before any fire hazard type worries that people would have today of course.
And just to round off, some nice pictures of how to get that plastic look in the home using that Blue Peter favourite, sticky back plastic, whether it be decorating your nicknacks or decorating the actual building!