The History of Plastics in Australia

The main focus of this website is on Australian Plastic Canisters, but other items and companies are included.

Daily News (Perth), 3rd October 1947 p.9 Manufacturer unknown.

Although the word plastic (from Greek plastikos) actually refers to any pliable or changeable substance, including wax, rubber, clay, etc., we now use it to refer to the substances, both synthetic and semi- synthetic, that have been developed since 1835 when a form of PVC (polyvinylchloride) was invented. The first commerical product was celluloid, developed in 1865. In 1909 phenol-formaldehyde (named after its inventor Dr. Leo Baekeland as Bakelite), was introduced.
The plastic industry reportedly started in Australia with the importation of phenol-formaldehyde powder in 1917 used to make buttons, probably by Frederick Spencer Dalton. Another pioneer was Berthold Herrman of Herrman, Hatfield and Co. By the 1920s he had a successful button molding business in Darlinghurst, Sydney. He later sold the business to a couple of his brothers-in-law. With his wife Dorothy he went on to start an electrical product company that still exists today, HPM (Herrman Plastic Mouldings).
In 1927 two important companies started – Nally Products in Sydney, and Australian Moulding Corporation in Melbourne. During the 1930s there was rapid growth in the industry, with car parts, electrical components and household articles being produced. Whereas the earlier Bakelite type plastics were restricted to dark colours, the newer urea-formaldehydes could be produced in many, and brighter, shades. By 1933 Dunlop-Perdiau was producing hundreds of different items, and other firms such as Marquis, Garnite, Tilley and Sellex would soon start.
The demand for alternatives to materials that were unavailable during World War 2 boosted the development of new plastics and of the plastic industry world-wide. It ushered in a time of growth, both for those supplying the ingredients required, and for the actual making of plastic products. The table below, printed in The Argus newspaper in October 1956, outlines the growth of the Australian plastics industry.

In 1959 the Minister for Trade, Mr J. McEwen, stated that the industry had increased ten-fold since 1946. He explained that most plastics except nylon and acrylics were being made locally, including phenol-formaldehyde, melamine-formaldehyde, urea-formaldehyde, cellulose, acetate, polystyrene, polyvinylchloride, polyethelene, casein, polyester and other resins. Large quantities of chemicals were still being imported to keep up with demand. Part of this demand was for hygenic, virtually unbreakable, and colourful plastic kitchenware, including canister sets.

The History of Canisters in Australia

I must preface this section with the observation that historically there seems to have been confusion over the spelling of this word, and also its definition. Researching this topic in Trove (the National Library of Australia’s online digital repository of historical newspapers, etc.) I had to search under the spelling of ‘cannister’ as well as ‘canister’, as both variations were commonly used.

As to the definition of the term, I’m grateful to an explanation from an article in the ‘Construction’ newspaper dated 21st April, 1954, p.14: The word ‘can’ comes from the Greek ‘Kanistros’ meaning ‘reed’. In olden days grocers and apothecaries offered their wares in small reed baskets called ‘cannisters’, and the first tins were known as ‘tin cannisters’, and shortened to either ‘tins’ or ‘cans.’ So bear in mind if you are doing research that some historical references to canisters may refer to what we now think of as tins. Canisters are lidded containers used for storing dry goods. So when is a canister not a canister? When it holds tea, cakes, or salt! Then it seems to become a ‘caddy’, and for salt, a ‘cellar or pig’ despite the similar construction!

The Sun (Sydney) newspaper, 18th February 1953 page 20. Notice the canisters lined up on the kitchen cabinet.

 

Monsanto advertisement,‘Plastics Week’ souvenir, The Argus, 13 October 1955 p.11 In the 1950s canisters and other kitchenware were made from styrene which had started to be made locally.

Canisters were imported into Australia in the 1800s and probably earlier. From 1889 the Wilson brothers (the makers of the iconic Willow brand tin ware) were making tin biscuit canisters in North Melbourne. Tin canisters would continue to be made and marketed until at least the 1960s in Australia. There were also wooden, aluminium and glass (Pyrex) canisters available. Some Australian brands were Raco (by Rex Aluminium Company), Waratah, Norton (Color-Ware), Jason (Model Maid), and Metters.

Plastic canisters were made and marketed from 1942, and were very popular in the 1950s to 1960s. Many kitchens had canisters (commonly in sets of 4-6) for produce such as flour, sugar, tea, coffee, sago, rice and cereal, as well as cute little matching sets for their spices. There were also matching bread, scone and biscuit canisters and salt cellars. Before WWII they were made of Bakelite, but this became a controlled substance during the war as it was required for shell casings. Canisters ceased to be advertised for sale at this time. After restrictions were lifted, canisters came back on the market. However, from 1950 they were made of hard styrene which was now being produced in Australia by the American firm Monstanto under the name Lustrex.

Vintage plastic canisters were once regarded as new and fashionable, only to become old-fashioned and kitsch. Now again they are considered desirable and collectible. Prices for good quality or rare pieces can be high. Unfortunately, items for sale are often quoted as being 20-30 years older than they actually are, possibly due to their Art Deco styling. Research indicates that the oldest Australian made plastic canisters date from 1942, so describing them as being ‘from the 1920s -1930s’ is incorrect and misleading. Hopefully this book will be of help to collectors of vintage kitchenalia in dating and identifying their collections.

Plastics Week souvenir, The Argus, 13 October 1955, p.14. A very happy housewife shopping for plastic canisters in 1955 in Bourke Street, Melbourne. She is holding a Walter Barr ‘Clear- Vue’ canister, whilst Nally and Marquis canisters can be seen on the shelving behind her.

A portion of the article ‘Plastics Will Treat You Right’ that accompanyed the photo above read: ‘Polystyrene is hard and sturdy, but more brittle than other plastics. It is light, an excellent insulator, and it resists normal household heats. Other main features are the crystal clarity of uncoloured polystyrene and its brilliant colour range. Wash in warm water with soap or detergent. Don’t scour the surface and keep away from petrol, nail polish remover, cleaning fluids, lemon and orange rind. Avoid boiling liquids. Treat it as daintily as you would treat glass.’