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.
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
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
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)
- Pastel Blue
Who Actually Invented Celluloid?
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.
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.
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
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.
Not all celluloid is marked. In fact, I’d estimate that roughly half is unmarked. Here are some of the common marks:
- Pyralin, DuBarry
- Ivory, Pyralin, DuBarry
- Ivory, DuBarry, Py-ra-lin
- 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:
Vanity Items & Manicure Sets
A beautifully decorated, antique celluloid dresser box. Value: $30-40 (if perfect)
An antique celluloid container with pretty carved lid that holds a small pill box in the center. Value: $10-12
An antique celluloid hair receiver with three curved, applied feet. Value: $8-12
Antique, etched glass vanity jar with floral decorated celluloid lid. Value: $12-15
An antique celluloid brush. Value: $5-6
An antique celluloid comb. Value: $8-12
An antique celluloid hand mirror. Value: $15-25
An antique celluloid manicure set in a leather case with various nail impliments, a button hook, a buffer, and emory boards. Value: $15-20.
Exquisite, almost paper thin, celluloid bookmark die cut into the shape of a rose, advertising gloves. Value: $30-40
A collection of various celluloid buttons. Value: .50-$1 each
Antique celluloid button hooks. Value: $8-12 each.
An Art Deco celluloid button hook. Value: $12-15
A set of flatware (12 pieces) in black and ivory celluloid. Value: $15-25
A collection of unmatched forks and knives with celluloid handles. Value: $1-2 each
An antique celluloid stick pin made with faux tortoise and ivory and green striped celluloid. Value: $20-25
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
A. A pastel blue celluloid ring presentation box. Value: $25-30
B. A white celluloid ring presentation box. Value: $22-28
A carved celluloid watch presentation box by Hamilton. Value: $20-25
A. An antique tatting needle with celluloid handle and case. Value: $18-25
B. Antique celluloid tatting shuttles. Value: $6-12 each
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
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
An antique celluloid lid advertising White Rose tea. Value: $2-3
An antique clothes brush with celluloid handle. Value: $12-15
Related Article: Whisk Broom Collecting Guide
A pair of celluloid guitar picks by Fender (turned into earrings). Value: $1-2 each (as picks)
An antique celluloid trumpet vase. Value: $10-15
A pink antique pen and pencil set with leather case. Value: $18-25
An antique razor blade case advertising Gillette. Value: $12-15
A teal blue celluloid belt buckle. Value: $1-2
A large antique celluloid pin back type button featuring a girl holding her doll (damaged).
Value: $1-2 as found
A small antique, oval celluloid frame. Value: $10-12
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.
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:
- 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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