Ivory

In the late 19th century there was a realisation that the slaughter of elephants for their ivory was not sustainable and Phelan and Collender, billiard ball suppliers in the USA, offered a prize of $10,000 to anyone who could come up with a suitable alternative. In response to this John Wesley Hyatt developed Celluloid, a material which was subsequently used widely to manufacture goods that had previously been made from ivory. 


In the UK Alexander Parkes had also developed a mouldable cellulose nitrate substance, Parkesine (1), which he had introduced at the Great International Exhibition in London in 1865, exhibiting a range of fancy goods and declaring that it could be as hard as ivory.

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The appeal of natural ivory and the consumer appetite for goods made from it was such that when these sustainable alternatives were developed, manufacturers were quick to produce a wide range of affordable goods. These new materials were similar in appearance to ivory, with the manufacturing process replicating the striped layers of dentine in tusks. Vanity sets, brushes, fans, button hooks and a wide range of everyday accessories and objects became readily available (2-12).

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Whereas once retailers proudly advertised goods made only of the finest materials, by the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th century they were also extoling the virtues of items made from ivory-like plastics such as French Ivory, Ivaleur, Grained Ivory and Ivory Pyralin, their names encouraging consumers to make the connections between natural ivory and the new more affordable materials. Daniel Spill, a London company, even used an image of an elephant as its trademark for Ivoride (13). Being able to be carved as well as moulded, sometimes the similarity to ivory was extremely close as these pieces of a trinket box demonstrate (14).

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As these new materials gained in popularity they were valued for what they could offer – versatility, affordability and sustainability, and were seen as a luxury in their own right.

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