What Is Celluloid? (An Antique Guide with Values)

When John Wesley Hyatt invented celluloid in the 1860’s, little did he know that this unique material would be used to create hundreds of household items.

While the celluloid items most of us think of, like vanity jars, mirrors, and button hooks, have dropped in value (along with SO many other vintage and antique items), their place in history remains.

Hence today’s article answering the question, “What is celluloid?” as we take a deep dive into the history and values of this interesting collectible in a celluloid collecting guide.

Read through to the end to discover examples of celluloid antiques that have retained their value and to discover my tips for making money on it.

What is Celluloid? An in depth guide

My introduction to celluloid occurred in my great-grandmother’s bedroom. Pieces made of celluloid that dotted her vanity drew me in. I found their soft, ivory hues attractive and their contents: powder, buttons, and jewelry endlessly fascinating.

Today, I have two celluloid jars in my own personal vanity jar collection that I love, along with numerous button hooks and miscellaneous pieces of flatware collected in ironstone vases.

Table of Contents

Celluloid Definition
How to Identify Celluloid
Celluloid Marks
Celluloid Objects
Should You Buy Celluloid for Resale?

What is Celluloid?

Celluloid is the term coined by John Wesley Hyatt for a plastic material he patented in 1870. He compressed cellulose (e.g., paper pulp) and adhesive gum (e.g., camphor) under heat and pressure to create this early form of plastic.

In use until about the 1930’s for the manufacture of largely ivory-colored household items, its most common use was in the production of movie and x-ray film.

Other terms for Celluloid:

  • French Ivory
  • Pyralin
  • Ivorine

Celloid Colors

four antique celluloid handles in different shades of ivory

While many celluloid objects present as “ivory,” the range extends from true ivory to yellow, as you can see in the selection of handles above.

That said, colorants can easily be added to its composition to create a variety of transluscent to almost opaque colors, including the following:

  • Tortoise (amber swirl)
  • Black
  • White
  • Pink
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Pastel Blue

Who Actually Invented Celluloid?

Alexander Parkes

History credits Englishman Alexander Parkes with the 1862 invention of a material that served as a precuror to what we now know as celluloid. He called it Parkesine and is credited with the “birth” of plastic, Wikipedia.

John Wesley Hyatt

Meanwhile, in Albany, New York, inventor John Wesley Hyatt began working to create a material that could replace ivory.

Billiard balls up to that point had been manufactured from solid ivory. The near extinction of tusked animals and the rising cost of ivory posed a finacial problem for billiard room owners. Hyatt set out to solve that problem.

The offer of a $10,000 reward for such a replacement served to kickstart his experimentation. Sadly he didn’t win the prize as his product didn’t quite satisfy the needs of billiard players.

His invention, did however lead to several patents and the start of his Celluloid Manufacturing Company in 1872. One of the very first products they manufactured was dental plates for false teeth, Science History.

A follow-up invention included a way to produce hollow “tubes” of celluloid, which allowed the manufacture of toys, like dolls, and Christmas ornaments, like deer and other animals used in Putz displays.

In 2006 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in recognition of the hundreds of patents he secured related to numerouse inventions, including celluloid.

How to Identify Celluloid

Antique sellers can easily identify much of the common celluloid that they come across while vintage shopping. It has ivory coloration, varying from antique white to yellow, and it comes in forms we’re used to, like vanity items, frames, and vases.

Close up of celluloid handle showing faint lines to make it look like ivory

In addition, ivory toned celluloid often has faint, tightly drawn lines intended to make it look more like ivory. However, not all celluloid has these lines, and in fact, colored celluloid does not have them.

Antique green celluloid hand mirror

Manufacturers often used colored celluloid for vanity sets, typically with a combination of a solid pastel color, topped with a lighter, swirled layer of the same color.

Above is an example of a small, two-layer celluloid hand mirror: solid green topped with a lighter, swirled layer. Value: $12-15

Antique faux tortoise shell celluloid hair receiver

You’ll also come across pieces made to look like tortoise with amber and brown swirls, most often in vanity sets and hair combs. You can see a faux tortoise celluloid hair receiver above. Value: $15-20

Three dimensional pieces, like toys and ornaments tend to be extremely light, which helps to identify them as celluloid.

Celluloid Marks

Not all celluloid is marked. In fact, I’d estimate that roughly half is unmarked. Here are some of the common marks:

  1. Pyralin, DuBarry
  2. Ivory, Pyralin, DuBarry
  3. Ivory, DuBarry, Py-ra-lin
  4. Ivoroyd
  5. Ivaleur
  6. French Ivory (not pictured)

The term “DuBarry” through me off at first. Then I learned that it’s a cosmetics company that started business in 1902. According to Beauty Universe, they have the distinction of being the first cosmetic company in the U.S.

Unfortunately, I was unable to track down why they got into the celluloid business. Perhaps pieces were given away as a premium with cosmetic purchases?

How to Tell Celluloid, Bakelite & Lucite Apart

Celluloid, as mentioned above, can be found in numerous colors, but as compared with Bakelite, the colors appear more pastel, less bright than most Bakelite. On the other hand, Lucite colors are more transluscent than celluloid.

In addition, celluloid tends to be lighter in weight than both Bakelite and Lucite, which are denser materials.

Video With Celluloid:

Celluloid Objects

Vanity Items & Manicure Sets

Antique celluloid dresser box decorated with a beautiful image of dutch woman in the fields
Many thanks to Sylvia @ Sylvias Finds Etsy shop for permission to use this image.

A beautifully decorated, antique celluloid dresser box. Value: $30-40 (if perfect)

Antique Celluloid dresser box with pill box insert

An antique celluloid container with pretty carved lid that holds a small pill box in the center. Value: $10-12

Antique celluloid hair receiver

An antique celluloid hair receiver with three curved, applied feet. Value: $8-12

Antique Celluloid vanity jar with floral decoration

Antique, etched glass vanity jar with floral decorated celluloid lid. Value: $12-15

Antique celluloid brush

An antique celluloid brush. Value: $5-6

Antique celluloid comb

An antique celluloid comb. Value: $8-12

Antique celluloid hand mirror

An antique celluloid hand mirror. Value: $15-25

Antique celluloid manicure set in leather case

An antique celluloid manicure set in a leather case with various nail impliments, a button hook, a buffer, and emory boards. Value: $15-20.


Antique celluloid advertising bookmark--rose

Exquisite, almost paper thin, celluloid bookmark die cut into the shape of a rose, advertising gloves. Value: $30-40


Bunch of antique celluloid buttons

A collection of various celluloid buttons. Value: .50-$1 each


set of three celluloid handled button hooks

Antique celluloid button hooks. Value: $8-12 each.

Antique celluloid button hook with art deco decoration

An Art Deco celluloid button hook. Value: $12-15


Set of antique flatware with black and ivory celluloid handles

A set of flatware (12 pieces) in black and ivory celluloid. Value: $15-25

Misc. antique flatware with celluloid handles

A collection of unmatched forks and knives with celluloid handles. Value: $1-2 each


Antique Celluloid stick pin

An antique celluloid stick pin made with faux tortoise and ivory and green striped celluloid. Value: $20-25

Antique Celluloid Jewelry: key chain, brooch, collar pin, bolo slide

A. A key ring with a celluloid “box” that opens to reveal perfume. Value: $15-18
B. A horn-shaped, celluloid brooch with rhinestones. Value: $10-12
C. A collar pin made of celluloid “knots.” Value: $10-12
D. A green celluloid bolo slide featuring an elephant. Value: $5-6

Related Article: Jewelry Price Guide

Presentation Boxes

Antique celluloid ring presentation boxes

A. A pastel blue celluloid ring presentation box. Value: $25-30
B. A white celluloid ring presentation box. Value: $22-28

Antique Celluloid Watch presentation box

A carved celluloid watch presentation box by Hamilton. Value: $20-25

Sewing Related

Antique celluloid sewing supplies: pin cushion, sewing kit, scissors

A. An antique celluloid pin cushion. Value: $10-12
B. A red celluloid sewing kit advertising by Calvert gin. Value: $20-25
C. A pair of antique celluloid embroidery scissors. Value: $12-15

Antique celluloid tatting supplies

A. An antique tatting needle with celluloid handle and case. Value: $18-25
B. Antique celluloid tatting shuttles. Value: $6-12 each

Religious Items

various antique celluloid items: statue, prayer book, pocket saint, cross bookmark

A. Small celluloid Mary and Jesus decoration marked “Italy.” Value: $3-4
B. A prayer book with a celluloid cover (in rough shape). Value: $3-4 as found
C. Small celluloid religious tokens with metal repousse Jesus, marked “Italy.” Value: $3-4 each
D. An antique celluloid cross-shaped bookmark. Value: $10-15


Antique celluloid toys/ornaments: Native American doll, deer ornament, chick

A. A celluloid Native American toy. Value: $6-8
B. A white celluloid reindeer ornament. Value: $5-6
C. A yellow celluloid chick that “lays” small gold eggs. Value: $8-10


White rose advertising lid made of celluloid

An antique celluloid lid advertising White Rose tea. Value: $2-3

Antique clothes brush with celluloid handle

An antique clothes brush with celluloid handle. Value: $12-15

Related Article: Whisk Broom Collecting Guide

A pair of green Fender guitar picks

A pair of celluloid guitar picks by Fender (turned into earrings). Value: $1-2 each (as picks)

An antique celluloid trumpet vase

An antique celluloid trumpet vase. Value: $10-15

A pink antique celluloid pen and pencil set with leather case

A pink antique pen and pencil set with leather case. Value: $18-25

An antique Gillette celluloid razor blade case

An antique razor blade case advertising Gillette. Value: $12-15

A teal blue belt buckle

A teal blue celluloid belt buckle. Value: $1-2

A large celluloid pin back type button featuring a girl holding a doll

A large antique celluloid pin back type button featuring a girl holding her doll (damaged).
Value: $1-2 as found

Small oval antique celluloid frame

A small antique, oval celluloid frame. Value: $10-12

Celluloid Safety

Celluloid is known for its flammability, however, this is primarily related to celluloid film and x-rays. Before alternatives were discovered, celluloid fires led to untold loss of human life in both hospitals and movie theaters.

Note that there is little to fear from starting a collection of household items, like vanity jars or flatware.

Burned celluloid handle

That said, celluloid can be relatively easily scratched and even melted or burned, as you can see in the photo above. So you want to be careful around fire.

Should You Buy Celluloid for Resale?

In general, celluloid values have dropped rather precipitously over the past decade or so. It simply isn’t as popular as it once was.

While you might view that as bad news, it does mean that now is a great time to pick up pieces at extremely low prices.

In addition, I believe values will rebound.

What does this mean for resellers today? Well, there are a few circumstances under which I would consider continuing to buy the stuff. Here they are:

  • The price is extremely low, so you can offer the item at a competitive (low) price. E.g., pay $1 for a simple celluloid vanity box and sell it for $8-10.
  • You don’t mind hanging onto pieces until the prices go back up.
  • You’re a celluloid lover who wants to build a collection.

DO pick up the following items because they continue to sell for fairly good prices:

  • Bookmarks
  • Fountain Pens
  • Unusual or rare items like cigarette cases
  • Vanity sets in colors like green, pink, and purple
  • Be-jeweled pieces, i.e., those with rhinestones
  • Pieces with beautiful painting, usually found on hankie, glove, and collar boxes


As an ivory replacement, the invention of celluloid made all kinds of beautiful home goods available to middle income people who would not normally be in a position to afford anything made of ivory.

As new forms of cheaper plastic were invented and became readily available in the 1930’s and 40’s, celluloid began to lose favor. It was rediscovered and avidly collected as a vintage item in the 1980’s and 90’s, but again fell out of favor in the 2000’s.

In truth, there’s really no comparison between the soft beauty of “French ivory” and most of today’s plastics. For this reason, I truly believe antique lovers will get excited about celluloid again. Soon, I hope!

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  1. Can you comment about celluloid “sickness”? I know it can be passed from one item to another, but can it be spotted early on?

    1. I’ve never had to deal with this issue, but I’ve read about it. Keeping items out, rather than stored, particularly in plastic, seems to help. Also preventing pieces from touching each other so the sickness doesn’t spread is supposed to help. Maybe other readers will have some tips for you Pat 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for this interesting information about celluloid. I have been selling it rather consistently for the past few years. I have a sign titled French Ivory, with a little info about celluloid and the fact that the use of the name French Ivory was a marketing ploy…….so far it seems to be working for me too. I agree that often items can be purchased very reasonably and if priced correctly, purchasers feel as if they have gotten a good deal as well. I just found today a forgotten stash which includes the container with “Pill bottle” and my personal favorite, a fitted tubular ring presentation box. Again thanks so much for the info. “French Ivory” is now permanently on my watch for list.

    1. I liked how Diana mentioned the name “du Barry.” A French name, and it made me think of “French Ivory” and the other names for “Ivory-like celluloid.”

    2. Great to hear helpful comfirmation Sara! Glad that you’ve had some good success selling this interesting antique :):)

    3. Thanks Diana, I have two lovely mirrors. They are both very heavy & in great condition. One has a plain back, has an “S” on the back. Just so happens that my initial. They were part of an estate sale that had been stored since 1930. I’m looking for a clock to add to my collection.

      1. What great finds Sharon! So neat that they have your initial on them 🙂 Best of luck in your search for a matching clock-

  3. Thank You Diana 😊VERY INTERESTING INFORMATION 👏🏼👏🏼♥️❗️I ALWAYS wondered why some of this why they Were Made Like This , But ALL Of It Makes Sense👍🏼♥️G-d♥️Bless

  4. Our “Adirondack Girl” Diana may also be Psychic LOL! This month early, I started looking at an old antique hand-mirror from a Lady’s Dresser / Dressing set or similar, that I have here. So I started to research more on celluloid. Then not long ago, I see Diana’s email about this Celluloid article! Perfect timing for me. Absolutely very helpful article and information. My mirror is celluloid, though I’ve had it for several years and didn’t really realize this. In-fact, the picture above of the mirror handle with the burn damage etc., looks like my mirror handle. (Without the damage, thankfully.) I figure mine is Ivorine et al. One helpful identification point I think too, though a kind-of “back door method,” is the mirror glass itself. The mirrors will likely be beveled glass around the edges. And heavy. At least for the oldest pieces using celluloid. Diana mentioned that celluloid is lightweight, and it is. However the antique mirrors will be heavy. So my hand mirror with celluloid “case” is very top-heavy with the antique oval beveled glass mirror. And of course the mirror is not perfect it is aging. You know, sort of blackening and other aging from behind the glass, and the way they made antique mirrors, the construction etc. I always joked with people about celluloid because it’s highly inflammable etc. I’d say if you want to do the ultimate test to determine if it’s celluloid, either light it up somehow with a flame and/or throw it on the ground. If it explodes , it’s celluloid! Lol obviously just my warped sense of humor. I was not serious!

    1. The Rock group The Kinks mentioned “Celluloid Heroes” in one of their songs. This would be movie star heroes from film. My grandfather was a TV station Photographer and was involved with cameras and film his whole life. He’s gone now but I’m sure he knew about celluloid in film.

    2. I’m so glad my article arrived at just the right time Dan 🙂 Thanks for sharing tips about the glass in celluloid mirrors–that’s all very helpful. But I don’t want to hear about you lighting any celluloid on fire, LOL. And so interesting to note the use of “celluloid” in popular culture, like the Kink’s song!

  5. Thank you so much Diana for always informing us. I have a few pieces. I am very happy for your information on your great Interesting finds.

    1. You’re so welcome Marjorie! I’m glad you enjoyed the article and I so appreciate your kind comment 🙂

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