The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Brief histories of certain plastic enclosures *

* (restored)

‘The modern lightweight shopping bag is the invention of Swedish engineer Sten Gustaf Thulin. In the early 1960s, Thulin developed a method of forming a simple one-piece bag by folding, welding and die-cutting a flat tube of plastic for the packaging company Celloplast of Norrköping, Sweden. Thulin’s design produced a simple, strong bag with a high load-carrying capacity, and was patented worldwide by Celloplast in 1965.

‘Celloplast was a well-established producer of cellulose film and a pioneer in plastics processing. The company’s patent position gave it a virtual monopoly on plastic shopping bag production, and the company set up manufacturing plants across Europe and in the US. However, other companies saw the attraction of the bag, too, and the US petrochemicals group Mobil overturned Celloplast’s US patent in 1977.

‘In 1959 after the deaths of 80 babies and toddlers, suffocated by plastic dry-cleaning bags, California introduces a law to ban plastic dry cleaning bags. A spokesperson from the plastics industry “blamed parental carelessness in the deaths” and contrary to previous comments regarding reuse, argued that polyethylene film was “made and costed to be disposable.” The Society of the Plastics Industry, along with bag producers, resin companies and plastics processors drafted a Model Bill that preserved the existence of plastic garment bags in California. The net result is simply a printing requirement, providing a warning message, not a ban of the product. By 1996, 80% of grocery bags used were plastic.’ — bag


‘The history of plastic tubing is basically rooted in the Hula Hoop craze of the 1950s. That’s when two men named Robert Banks and Paul Hogan made a crucial discovery: crystalline polypropylene. Polyethylene is an inexpensive type of plastic material that’s extremely durable and chemical-resistant. Hogan and Banks discovered that ethylene could help to produce a similar type of plastic. Ethylene is Earth’s most prolifically produced type of organic compound.

‘However, actually producing plastic tubing was more challenging than you might expect. Even after the Phillips Petroleum Company had spent a small fortune to develop the plastic product’s manufacturing process, there was initially little demand for the resin product. That changed towards the end of the 1950s. Polyethylene became a crucial material for various products, such as liquid detergent bottles and baby bottles. Interestingly, the huge success of the Hula Hoop resulted in several new applications for polyethylene-including a new and exciting type of plastic tubing.’ —


‘Joseph B. Friedman was sitting at his brother’s fountain parlor, the Varsity Sweet Shop, in the 1930s, watching his little daughter Judith fuss over a milkshake. She was drinking out of a paper straw. Since the straw was designed to be straight, little Judith was struggling to drink it up. Friedman had an idea. He brought a straw to his home, where he liked to tinker with inventions like “lighted pencils” and other newfangled writing equipment. The straw would be a simple tinker. A screw and some string would do.

‘Friedman inserted a screw into the straw toward the top. Then he wrapped dental floss around the paper, tracing grooves made by the inserted screw. Finally, he removed the screw, leaving a accordion-like ridge in the middle of the once-straight straw. Voila! he had created a straw that could bend around its grooves to reach a child’s face over the edge of a glass.

‘The modern bendy straw was born. The plastic would come later. The “crazy” straw — you know, the one that lets you watch the liquid ride a small roller coaster in plastic before reaching your mouth — would come later, too. But the the game-changing invention had been made. In 1939, Friedman founded Flex-Straw Company. By the 1940s, he was manufacturing flex-straws with his own custom-built machines. His first sale didn’t go to a restaurant, but rather to a hospital, where glass tubes still ruled. Nurses realized that bendy straws could help bed-ridden patients drink while lying down. Solving the “Judith problem” had created a multi-million dollar business.’ — The Atlantic


‘David S. Sheridan was the inventor of the modern disposable catheter in the 1940s. In his lifetime he started and sold four catheter companies and was dubbed the “Catheter King” by Forbes Magazine in 1988. He is also credited with the invention of the modern “disposable” plastic endotracheal tube now used routinely in surgery. Prior to his invention, red rubber tubes were used, sterilized, and then re-used, which had a high risk of infection and thus often led to the spread of disease. As a result Mr Sheridan is credited with saving thousands of lives.

‘In the early 1900s, a Dubliner named Walsh and a famous Scottish urinologist called Norman Gibbon teamed together to create the standard catheter used in hospitals today. Named after the two creators, it was called the Gibbon-Walsh catheter. The Gibbon and the Walsh catheters have been described and their advantages over other catheters shown. The Walsh catheter is particularly useful after prostatectomy for it drains the bladder without infection or clot retention. The Gibbon catheter has largely obviated the necessity of performing emergency prostatectomy. It is also very useful in cases of urethral fistula.’ — collaged


‘Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing (3M) was founded in Two Harbors in 1902. By 1920 the company had developed some of the best sandpapers in the world. When they put out a call for new engineers to join the company, Richard Drew wrote to ask for the job. Drew, then an engineering student, had been putting himself through school by playing the banjo in several Twin Cities dance bands. He was hired to take trial samples of 3M products to auto shops, which used the sandpaper to prepare cars for painting. While on a delivery in 1923, he noticed that the auto shops had a problem.

‘At the time, two-tone paint jobs were very popular. At the auto shops, Drew watched painters struggle to seal off areas for the two-color painting process. The tape that painters used either didn’t seal effectively or stuck so tightly that it peeled the paint. The tapes left gummy residue that ruined the car’s finish. After seeing the problem, Drew had the idea to create a new tape.

‘After presenting the idea to his supervisors, Drew was granted the use of a laboratory, where he experimented with different adhesives and backings. He eventually found an adhesive that sealed tightly while releasing cleanly. He applied it to a crepe paper backing, which gave the tape the ability to stretch and adapt to curves and contours. In 1925, 3M released Drew’s invention, the Scotch brand masking tape.’ — MNopedia


‘Plastics were used in clothing since its invention, particularly in raincoats. But PVC clothing became more noted in the 1960s and early 1970s fashion trend. The fashion designers of that era saw the PVC plastic as the ideal material to design futuristic clothes. During that era, boots, raincoats, dresses and other PVC garments were made in many colors and even transparent and worn in public areas to some degrees. At that time it was also common to see PVC clothes on films and TV series such as The Avengers, for example. And since then these shiny plastic clothes became a fetish object.

‘In mid 1990s, clothes made of PVC have been prevalent in young people’s fashions, particularly in jackets, skirts and trousers, also appearing in the media. During the mid-1990s it was common to see presenters, models, actresses, actors, singers and other celebrities wearing PVC clothes on TV and magazines. As fashions come round and round again, it would seem that PVC are appearing again in mainstream street fashions as well as continuing to be central to the fetish scene.’ —


‘The Plastic car was a car build with agricultural plastic and was fueled with hemp combustible (oil or ethanol). Although the formula used to create the plasticized panels has been lost, it is conjectured that the first iteration of the body was made partially from soybeans and Hemp. The body was lighter and therefore more fuel efficient than a normal metal body. It was made by Henry Ford’s auto company in Dearborn, Michigan, and was introduced to public view on August 13, 1941.

‘Henry Ford gave the project to the Soybean Laboratory in Greenfield Village. The person in charge there was Lowell Overly, who had a background in tool and die design. The finished prototype was exhibited in 1941 at the Dearborn Days festival in Dearborn, Michigan. It was also shown at the Michigan State Fair Grounds the same year. Patent 2,269,452 for the chassis of the soybean car was issued January 13, 1942. Because of World War II all US automobile production was curtailed considerably, and the plastic car experiment basically came to a halt. By the end of the war the plastic car idea went into oblivion. According to Lowell Overly, the prototype car was destroyed by Bob Gregorie.

‘Others argue that Ford invested millions of dollars into research to develop the plastic car to no avail. He proclaimed he would “grow automobiles from the soil” — however it never happened, even though he had over 12,000 acres of soybeans for experimentation. Some sources even say the Soybean Car wasn’t made from soybeans at all — but of phenolic plastic, an extract of coal tar. One newspaper even reports that all of Ford’s research only provided whipped cream as a final product.’ – collaged


‘When I was 7 years old, I was Chewbacca for Halloween. The body of the costume was made out of a sheet of plastic, the kind that went “whoosh, whoosh” when you walked. It looked like a garbage bag. On it was a picture of Chewie’s head with “Star Wars” emblazoned above it, in case you didn’t recognize the Wookiee and what movie he was from. The mask—a thin, brittle piece of plastic—had two eyehole cutouts, two small nose-holes and a slight mouth slit for easy breathing. Only, it wasn’t easy to breathe when wearing that mask. And I had a hard time fitting it over my thick, plastic-framed glasses because the thin white elastic that held it in place would break every other time I put it on. And once I did, my glasses would steam up from the massive amount of sweat my body was producing from the costume.

‘Ben Cooper, the son of a restaurant owner who became a costume impresario, didn’t invent the Halloween costume. But he and his company awakened generations of kids to the potential of what Halloween could be. Ben Cooper wasn’t the first company to manufacture Halloween costumes, nor was it the first to license Hollywood creations for the costume-buying public. But Ben Cooper had an advantage: The company excelled at getting licenses to characters before they became popular and, in a lot of cases, before anyone else. Consider one of its first purchases, in 1937: Snow White, from a little company called Walt Disney.

‘It wasn’t until after World War II, however, that Halloween costume manufacturing became big business. With the rise of television in the 1950s and the popularity of TV shows such as The Adventures of Superman, Zorro, and Davy Crockett, Ben Cooper obtained the licenses to many of these live-action shows and began mass producing inexpensive representations of them in costume form for less than $3 each, which amounts to about 12 bucks these days. The company distinguished itself with speed: It would rapidly buy rights, produce costumes and get them onto store shelves, which opened a whole new world of costuming to children.

‘Ben Cooper’s heyday didn’t last forever. The company filed for bankruptcy twice due to lagging sales, relocation expenses, and the early 1990s recession. But it was new rivals that probably did the most damage to Ben Cooper ’s business, selling high-quality latex masks and more realistic costumes. One of those competitors was Rubie’s Costume Company, which eventually bought Ben Cooper and dissolved it.’ — Charles Moss, Slate


‘The first inflatable structure was designed in 1959 by John Scurlock in Shreveport, Louisiana who was experimenting with inflatable covers for tennis courts when he noticed his employees enjoyed jumping on the covers. He was a mechanical engineer and liked physics. Scurlock was a pioneer of inflatable domes, inflatable tents, inflatable signs and his greatest achievement was the invention of the safety air cushion that is used by fire and rescue departments to catch people jumping from buildings or heights.

‘The first space walk manufacturing company was in New Orleans in a leased warehouse that also sewed horse pads. His wife, Frances, started the first inflatable rental company in 1968 and in 1976 they built a custom facility for the production and rental of the products. They marketed the space walks to children’s events such as birthday parties, school fairs and company picnics. These original inflatables did not have the enclosure of today’s inflatables, creating a safety hazard.

‘Their son Frank Scurlock expanded their rental concept throughout the United States under the brand names “Space Walk” and “Inflatable Zoo”. Frank also founded the first all inflatable indoor play park called “Fun Factory” on Thanksgiving Day 1986 in Metairie, Louisiana. A second unit was opened in Memphis Tennessee called “Fun Plex” in 1987. Both locations closed after the value of the property became too great for the operations. The first inflatable was an open top mattress with no sides, called a “Space Pillow”. In 1967 a pressurized inflatable top was added, it required two fans and got hot in the summer like a greenhouse. That version was called “Space Walk” and was adopted as the company name.

‘In 1974, to solve the heat problem, a new product line called “Jupiter Jump” was created that has inflated columns that supported netting walls which allowed the air to pass through. Further enhancements of this style were developed until, in the early 1990s, the first entirely enclosed inflatable structure, built to resemble a fairytale castle, appeared on the market and proved immensely popular. Bouncy Castles, as they’re now popularly known, no longer need to physically resemble a castle to warrant the moniker.’ — collaged






p.s. Hey. Enjoy the post today if you can. See you on Monday.

1 Comment

  1. Steve Erickson

    I love the rhythmic play of the moving images here.

    My New York Film Festival overview is up: I wish it could’ve been longer and covered more films at greater length, but such are the limits of these things. Today, I’m seeing Godard’s THE IMAGE BOOK, and tomorrow, I’m seeing Tsai Ming-liang’s YOUR FACE for a review in Kinoscope.

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