Dadie and Norman Perlov spent decades traveling the world and collecting celluloid before offering all 7,000-plus pieces to the Smithsonian
As you wander through a museum, do you ever wonder about the story behind a collection or object? How did something so intriguing or beautiful ever come into a donor's possession? Why did the donor part with it? These stories can be surprising, convoluted, and, on occasion, even incredible. If you're lucky enough to see the display of celluloid on the first floor of the museum, you'll see a collection with a particularly interesting story.
Dadie and Norman Perlov, long-time residents of New York City, have always had the "collecting bug." Early in their life together, they acquired artifacts made of iron, but the objects tended to be large in size and began to overwhelm the apartment, which was soon being shared by their three young daughters. This prompted Dadie to look for an inexpensive collectible that could be handled by and would be of interest to her children. During the 1960s, she settled on celluloid, a new material developed by American inventor John Wesley Hyatt in 1869.
Considered the first semi-synthetic plastic, celluloid was invented to replace ivory in billiard balls, but it proved unsuitable for the purpose. This sent its inventor to look for other applications. Because celluloid could be made to imitate expensive or rare materials -- such as ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl -- it was soon employed in the manufacture of fancy goods affordable for the growing middle class. As celluloid became more plentiful and inexpensive, its applications expanded, and by the 1880s, it was everywhere. To provide just a few examples, it was used to make postcards, game pieces, toys, advertising novelties and souvenirs, jewelry, knitting needles, straight razor handles, and imitation linen collars and cuffs. (To learn more about celluloid and other historical plastics, check out the Syracuse University Library Special Collections Research Center.)