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This Is How the Age of Plastics Began
In the closing months of World War II, Americans talked nonstop about how and when the war would end, and about how life was about to change. Germany would fall soon, people agreed on that. Opinions varied on how much longer the war in the Pacific would go on.
Amid the geopolitical turmoil, a small number of people and newspapers chattered about the dawn of another new age. A subtle shift was about to change the fabric of people’s lives: cork was about to lose its dominance as a cornerstone of consumer manufacturing to a little-known synthetic substance called plastic.
In 1939, the future arrived at the World’s Fair in New York with the slogan, “The World of Tomorrow.” The fairground in Queens attracted 44 million people over two seasons, and two contenders laid claim to being the most modern industrial material: cork and plastic.
For decades, cork had been rising as the most flexible of materials; plastic was just an intriguing possibility. The manifold forms of cork products were featured everywhere, from an international Paris Exhibition to the fair in Queens, where the material was embedded in the Ford Motors roadway of the future.
Meanwhile, plastic made a promising debut, with visitors getting their first glimpse of nylon, Plexiglas, and Lucite. Souvenirs included colorful plastic (phenolic resin) pencil sharpeners molded in the form of the fair’s emblematic, obelisk-shaped Trylon building. Visitors also picked up celluloid badges and pen knives, and a Remington electric razor made of Bakelite, along with plastic ashtrays, pens, and coasters.
In the months after the fair, as US entry into the war became inevitable, the government grew concerned by American dependence on cork, which was obtained entirely from forests in Europe. The United States imported nearly half of the world’s production.
People in their 50s today remember when a bottle cap included a cork sliver insert to seal it. But in 1940, cork was in far more than bottle caps. It was the go-to industrial sealant used in car windshield glazing, insulation, refrigerated containers, engine gaskets, and airplanes. In defense, cork was crucial to tanks, trucks, bomber planes, and weapon systems. As the vulnerability for the supply of this all-purpose item became clear with the Nazi blockade of the Atlantic, the government put cork under “allotment,” or restricted use prioritized for defense. Information about cork supplies became subject to censorship.
In October 1941, the Commerce Department released a hefty report detailing the situation titled “Cork Goes to War.” Besides outlining the growing industrial use of cork, the report highlighted Hitler’s efforts to scoop up Europe’s cork harvests and the need for a systemic American response.
Part of that response was an intense research and development machine that ramped up the nascent synthetic industry to fill gaps in defense pipelines. Some were synthetics first developed by America’s enemies: chemists at Armstrong Cork, an industry leader, crafted new products using materials research from Germany. Many synthetics were developed during the mad scramble to replace organic items that the blockade made expensive. To pay for the research and offset rising materials costs, Armstrong trimmed employees’ use of items like carbon paper and paper clips; the company’s accountants noted 95,000 clips used per month in 1944, a 40 percent decline since the war’s start.
In 1944, a book titled “Plastic Horizons,” by B.H. Weil and Victor Anhorn, documented the promise of plastic. A chapter titled “Plastics in a World at War” opens with a paean to the blood toll of war. But then the authors trace how war bends science to its needs for new both deadly and life-saving items: Physicists turn to aircraft detection, chemists to explosives. “Nylon for stockings has become nylon for parachutes. Rubber for tires has almost vanished, and desperate measures are required to replace it with man-made elastics.” That section concludes, “Plastics have indeed gone to war.”
In one dramatic example, the authors describe how plastics came to neutralize Germany’s secret weapon: a magnetic mine designed to be laid on the ocean floor and detonated by the magnetic field surrounding any vessel that passed over it. To counteract that, Allied scientists created plastic-coated electric cables that wrapped around the ships’ hulls and “degaussed” them, rendering the mines ineffective. Thanks, polyvinyl chloride!
The book got a glowing review in the New York Times, which noted that America was experiencing a chemical revolution.
Early plastics, as the book explained, covered a wide range of natural or semi-synthetics like celluloid and synthetic resins that could be molded with heat and pressure.
After the war, chronic shortages of common materials like rubber, cork, linseed oil, and paints forced chemists to scramble for substitutes, further speeding the embrace of plastics. Profitable bottling innovations included the LDPE squeeze bottle introduced by Monsanto in 1945, which paved the way for plastic bottles for soaps and shampoos, and the “Crowntainer,” a seamless metal cone-topped beer can.
There was also a shortage of tinplate for metal caps. Industry was quickly adapting to finding substitutes. Giles Cooke, the in-house chemist at one manufacturing leader, Crown Cork & Seal, was dabbling in research on synthetic resins for container sealants through the 1940s. In beverage bottling, cork’s quality remained unmatched. You could taste the difference between a cork-sealed bottle and one sealed with plastic. Recognizing that it would takes decades to replace cork as a sealant, Cooke and his colleagues hedged their bets with patents on both silicone film container liners and rubber hydrochloride.
In the end, “Plastic Horizons” undersold its subject. Its closing chapter hardly seems to anticipate the ubiquity of plastics we see today, along with its formidable waste problem. “In the future, plastics will supplement rather than supplant such traditional structural materials as metals, wood, and glass,” the authors wrote.
“There may be no Plastics Age, but that should discourage no one; applications will multiply with the years,” they continued. “Plastics are indeed versatile materials, and industry, with the help of science, will continue to add to their number and to improve their properties. Justifiable optimism is the order of the day, and the return of peace will enable the plastics industry to fulfill its promise of things to come.”
By 1946, the transition to plastics had reached a new threshold. That year, New York hosted a National Plastics Exposition, where for the first time, a range of strong, new materials and consumer products headed for American homes were on display. One observer noted, “the public are certainly steamed up on plastics.”
The World of Tomorrow indeed.
How Islam spread through the Christian world via the bedroom
There are few transformations in world history more profound than the conversion of the peoples of the Middle East to Islam. Starting in the early Middle Ages, the process stretched…
There are few transformations in world history more profound than the conversion of the peoples of the Middle East to Islam. Starting in the early Middle Ages, the process stretched across centuries and was influenced by factors as varied as conquest, diplomacy, conviction, self-interest and coercion. There is one factor, however, that is largely forgotten but which played a fundamental role in the emergence of a distinctively Islamic society: mixed unions between Muslims and non-Muslims.
For much of the early Islamic period, the mingling of Muslims and non-Muslims was largely predicated on a basic imbalance of power: Muslims formed an elite ruling minority, which tended to exploit the resources of the conquered peoples – reproductive and otherwise – to grow in size and put down roots within local populations. Seen in this light, forced conversion was far less a factor in long-term religious change than practices such as intermarriage and concubinage.
The rules governing religiously mixed families crystallised fairly early, at least on the Muslim side. The Quran allows Muslim men to marry up to four women, including ‘People of the Book’, that is, Jews and Christians. Muslim women, however, were not permitted to marry non-Muslim men and, judging from the historical evidence, this prohibition seems to have stuck. Underlying the injunction was the understanding that marriage was a form of female enslavement: if a woman was bound to her husband as a slave is to her master, she could not be subordinate to an infidel.
Outside of marriage, the conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries saw massive numbers of slaves captured across North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. Female slaves of non-Muslim origin, at least, were often pressed into the sexual service of their Muslim masters, and many of these relationships produced children.
Since Muslim men were free to keep as many slaves as they wished, sex with Jewish and Christian women was considered licit, while sex with Zoroastrians and others outside the ‘People of the Book’ was technically forbidden. After all, they were regarded as pagans, lacking a valid divine scripture that was equivalent to the Torah or the Gospel. But since so many slaves in the early period came from these ‘forbidden’ communities, Muslim jurists developed convenient workarounds. Some writers of the ninth century, for example, argued that Zoroastrian women could be induced or even forced to convert, and thus become available for sex.
Whether issued via marriage or slavery, the children of religiously mixed unions were automatically considered Muslims. Sometimes Jewish or Christian men converted after already having started families: if their conversions occurred before their children attained the age of legal majority – seven or 10, depending on the school of Islamic law – they had to follow their fathers’ faith. If the conversions occurred after, the children were free to choose. Even as fathers and children changed religion, mothers could continue as Jews and Christians, as was their right under Sharia law.
Mixed marriage and concubinage allowed Muslims – who constituted a tiny percentage of the population at the start of Islamic history – to quickly integrate with their subjects, legitimising their rule over newly conquered territories, and helping them grow in number. It also ensured that non-Muslim religions would quickly disappear from family trees. Indeed, given the rules governing the religious identity of children, mixed kinship groups probably lasted no longer than a generation or two. It was precisely this prospect of disappearing that prompted non-Muslim leaders – Jewish rabbis, Christian bishops and Zoroastrian priests – to inveigh against mixed marriage and codify laws aimed at discouraging it. Because Muslims were members of the elite, who enjoyed greater access to economic resources than non-Muslims, their fertility rates were probably higher.
Of course, theory and reality did not always line up, and religiously mixed families sometimes flouted the rules set by jurists. One of the richest bodies of evidence for such families are the biographies of Christian martyrs from the early Islamic period, a little-known group who constitute the subject of my book, Christian Martyrs under Islam (2018). Many of these martyrs were executed for crimes such as apostasy and blasphemy, and not a small number of them came from religiously mixed unions.
A good example is Bacchus, a martyr killed in Palestine in 786 – about 150 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Bacchus, whose biography was recorded in Greek, was born into a Christian family, but his father at some point converted to Islam, thereby changing his children’s status, too. This greatly distressed Bacchus’s mother, who prayed for her husband’s return, and in the meantime, seems to have exposed her Muslim children to Christian practices. Eventually, the father died, freeing Bacchus to become a Christian. He was then baptised and tonsured as a monk, enraging certain Muslim relatives who had him arrested and killed.
Similar examples come from Córdoba, the capital of Islamic Spain, where a group of 48 Christians were martyred between 850 and 859, and commemorated in a corpus of Latin texts. Several of the Córdoba martyrs were born into religiously mixed families, but with an interesting twist: a number of them lived publicly as Muslims but practised Christianity in secret. In most instances, this seems to have been done without the knowledge of their Muslim fathers, but in one unique case of two sisters, it allegedly occurred with the father’s consent. The idea that one would have a public legal identity as a Muslim but a private spiritual identity as a Christian produced a unique subculture of ‘crypto-Christianity’ in Córdoba. This seems to have spanned generations, fuelled by the tendency of some ‘crypto-Christians’ to seek out and marry others like them.
In the modern Middle East, intermarriage has become uncommon. One reason for this is the long-term success of Islamisation, such that there are simply fewer Jews and Christians around to marry. Another reason is that those Jewish and Christian communities that do exist today have survived partly by living in homogeneous environments without Muslims, or by establishing communal norms that strongly penalise marrying out. In contrast to today’s world, where the frontiers between communities can be sealed, the medieval Middle East was a world of surprisingly porous borders, especially when it came to the bedroom.
Trump, Benjamin Franklin and the long history of calling immigrants ‘snakes’
In the midst of a national (non-)dialogue about immigration, one major sticking point has been the belief promoted by Donald Trump that immigrants crossing the southern border are criminals, slinking northward…
In the midst of a national (non-)dialogue about immigration, one major sticking point has been the belief promoted by Donald Trump that immigrants crossing the southern border are criminals, slinking northward like reptiles to spread their venom.
Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2018, Trump read a poem that he had frequently recited during his campaign to discuss immigration. The poem (first written as a song in the 1960s) tells the story of a woman who rescues a freezing snake but is bitten after she revives it. The last stanza is a dialogue between the woman and the snake: “I saved you, cried the woman, and you’ve bitten me. Heavens why?/ You know your bite is poisonous, and now I’m going to die./ Oh, shut up, silly woman said the reptile with a grin./ You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
Trump’s unsupported allegations that immigrants are “animals, not people” may find a popular reception among many Americans because the association between immigrants, criminality, and reptility goes back to a period well before the founding of the nation. The sticking point in the national dialogue might be removed if citizens had more information about the cultural origins of the belief that immigrants are felons—the legal equivalent of rattlesnakes.
After the establishment of the British colonies in America in the early seventeenth century, it became a common practice in England for authorities to round up “beggars, Gypsies, prostitutes, the poor, the orphaned,” and other “lewd and dangerous persons” and ship them to the colonies.To pay for their passage, the ship’s captain sold the immigrants into servitude upon arrival. Dennis Todd, author of Defoe’s America, estimates that about 130,000 British immigrants were brought to the Chesapeake Bay region between 1670 and 1718, far outnumbering the property-owning colonists (Todd, 7). Of this number, about half were indentured servants. Many of the remainder were felons who were granted transportation to America as an alternative to capital punishment.After passage of the Transportation Act of 1718, a large class of felonies was made punishable by transportation, rather than death. Between 1718 and 1775, some 40,000 convicts were transported to America (Todd, 8).
In the years prior to the importation of enslaved people from Africa, indentured servants, some of whom came voluntarily, were the principal source of labor in America. They were bound to work for a limited period of time (generally four to seven years), after which they were to be freed. They were often paid “freedom dues” of food, clothing, tools, and land upon completing their terms of service. After 1718, indentured servants were gradually supplanted by enslaved Africansand by transported felons. The felons were often sentenced to fourteen years of labor and did not enjoy the rights accorded to indentured servants. The longer terms of service and the lower social status of transported felons, together with a tighter market for tobacco, meant that felons after 1718 were much less likely to obtain the rewards of transportation that they might once have expected.
Benjamin Franklin, a patriot committed to ideals of human liberty, decried the policies of the British government that sent ships loaded with convicts to America. In 1749, the Assembly in Pennsylvania passed a bill forbidding the importation of convicts,but the measure wasrejected by the British Parliament on the grounds “That such Laws are against the Publick Utility, as they tend to present the Improvement and Well Peopling of the Colonies” (Franklin, 358). In a satirical letter worthy of Jonathan Swift, Franklin expressed the gratitude of the colonies to “our Mother Country for the Welfare of her Children,” and proposed a fair return for the shipments of convicts. His proposal was that, in the Spring, the colonists should round up thousands of the “venomous Reptiles we call Rattle-Snakes, Felons-convict from the Beginning of the World,” and transport them to Britain, where they may be released in St. James’s Park, in the pleasure gardens about London, “but particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Tradeand Members of Parliament; for to them we are most particularly obliged” (Franklin, 360).
Franklin, of course, did not consider all immigrants to be comparable to rattlesnakes, but many colonists made no distinction between the two groups. One pamphleteer, whom Franklin quoted in his letter to the Pennsylvania Gazette, exclaimed “In what can Britain show a more Sovereign Contempt for us, than by emptying their Jails into our Settlements; unless they would likewise empty their Jakes on our Tables?” (Franklin, 358). Eventually, says Todd, “all servants, free or criminal, came to be seen as socially inferior and unfit” (Todd, 144). Franklin was not brazen enough to propose a wall to keep out both servants and slaves, but in some ways his proposal to send rattlesnakes to Britain went further. His letter was really a cry to Americans to stand up for their own sovereignty (to which they did not yet have a claim, though Franklin thought they should exert it). Presumably, Franklin thought that sovereignty for America would leadto a more humanitarian policy on immigration.
America should be able to control its borders and determine the composition of its citizenry without recourse to rhetoric that demeans both immigrants and the office of the Presidency. The starting point, rather than sticking point, may be the moment when we stop regarding immigrants as rattlesnakes.
RECOMMENDED READING: WHITE TRASH - THE 400-YEAR UNTOLD HISTORY OF CLASS IN AMERICA BY NANCY ISENBERG
THE BORDER PATROL HAS BEEN A CULT OF BRUTALITY SINCE 1924