Celluloid, Chinese laundries and racism


When I was in Holly Lodge Grammar School for Boys, so many years ago, I developed an interest in chemistry.  My brother and I had a chemistry set that we'd add to whenever we could. And it was pretty easy to do so, because at the time there weren't a lot of restrictive rules about what a shopkeeper could sell to two kids. It wouldn't be hard to imagine the kind of experiments we were interested in.  Yes, those that produced an explosion.
There were two main suppliers of the necessary chemicals in Smethwick: a garden shop on the Oldbury Road and the pharmacy, on the opposite side of the road, owned by Mr. Carr BSc, MRPS. For gunpowder, the sulphur and charcoal were available at the garden shop as fertilizers, but for the potassium nitrate you had to go to the pharmacy. Mixed together, and the blue touch paper lit, they provided a dramatic and satisfying explosion for our young ears!  Where we were less successful was in the production of nitrocellulose. Probably the difficulty was in the relatively low concentration of nitric acid available to us from Mr Carr.  It was possible to believe that our nitrocellulose, put on a large steel vice, and then hit with a heavy hammer, produced a small explosion, but it was probably only in our imagination.

But nitrocellulose has a history that is not exclusively related to its use as a powerful explosive. There is also its use, when mixed with camphor, to create Celluloid. In fact what we know as 'Celluloid' was created by Alexander Parkes from Birmingham. He named it 'Parkesine' in 1856, before it was finally registered as Celluloid in 1870. Celluloid was the first plastic created and is easily moulded. It was initially used as a cheaper substitute for ivory, as it was similar in colour. Later, it was used for photographic plates and in the film industry before the introduction of (non-flammable) acetate security film in the 1950s. So it has an important presence in our artistic and social history.  Since celluloid is highly flammable, it has however long since been replaced by other plastics with the odd exception of, for example, ping-pong balls and guitar picks.  So don't smoke when you're playing table-tennis.

Fashion, but also class and racism, make a major appearance in the shirt fronts, collars and shirt cuffs made of celluloid. The association between the whiteness of clothes and social status has a history that begins in the sixteenth century with the discovery of starch in 1554.  Maintaining whiteness required constant washing, and so there was a price to pay to keep one's appearance fashionable, affordable only by the wealthier classes. The white collar, which would become a sign of professionalism in the late nineteenth century, had already been a sign of refinement in the late eighteenth century among men of the upper middle class. Back in the early nineteenth century, the English dandy George "Beau" Brummell promoted the use of white clothing as an indication of status. Whilst the collar and cuff gradually replaced the ruff, and lace at the wrists, the link between the whiteness of men's clothing and status continued. Which meant that laundries were profitable businesses, especially in the second half of the 19th century.

Although, in general, there was a variety of people who took advantage of their clients’ desire to have clean clothes without the hard work, a racial peculiarity appeared in the West of the United States in the 19th century - the laundry business became dominated by the Chinese. This was in turn due to racial discrimination by Euro-Americans in prohibiting their participation in jobs other than mining and railway construction. In fact, many Americans were strongly against the Chinese presence in America and there were often attempts to boycott their products and services, but without success. Like today it was a question of price.  Mark Twain noted that for the Chinese laundry in Nevada "the price for washing was $2.50 per dozen, and therefore rather cheaper than what laundries run by whites needed to charge at the time.”

But all this would be the subject of a serious attack when celluloid made its appearance.  Typically men’s shirts had detachable fronts, collars and cuffs, and all needed to be starched to conform to the fashion of the time.  But celluloid made all this redundant because it did not become dirty easily and was, by nature, rigid. For the vast majority who needed to maintain a certain style, but without servants to do things for them, this was a significant saving.

We can see from the trade cards distributed at the time on behalf of the Celluloid Company, that the unpopularity of the Chinese was a major point in the sale of these new products. In fact calling them 'trade cards' implies something fairly refined, when in fact they were examples of the sort of scurrilous advertising typical of the lack of regulation at that time. While there were cards that represented various other themes, like circus acts, the most common subject involved the parody of upset Chinese washerwomen. For example, there is a card depicting a travelling salesman displaying his new products of celluloid cuffs, collars and shirt fronts, leaving the assembled Chinese washerwomen in a state of shock, with their black pigtails standing on end.

Among all these trade cards, stereotyping the Chinese, even their washing accessories are used as props for the wished for disappearance of the Chinese: their washing tubs are converted into boats to return to Asia in a card entitled "Off for China". Euro-americans are shown as big healthy people whilst the chinese are shown almost as pygmies. Another feature of these cards is the incorporation of 'Chinese' English into the text. Again, in "Off for China", the Chinese response to the new collars and cuffs of the American man appears at the bottom of the card: "No more washee washee, melican man wear celluloid collar and cuff". The translation of the Chinese accent underlines their very alien status in the Anglo-American culture of that time.

But why were the Chinese so unpopular?  At that same time the Japanese didn't suffer from the same problem.  In fact, as can be seen from another card showing a pretty young Japanese girl dressed in celluloid collars and cuffs, they were seen as people of a relatively high social standing. Japanese art was particularly popular. But when their "No More Chinese Cheap Labor" trading card was produced by the Celluloid Company, discrimination against the Chinese in America was 'coincidentally' at its peak.

Chinese immigration had signficantly increased. The Chinese accounted for 25% of California's working population i
n 1870. Riots against them broke out along the Pacific coast in 1870, and the 'Workingmen' party pledged to get rid of Chinese labour "as soon as possible". Around the same time, factories in the north-east also began hiring Chinese workers, often as strike-breakers, so creating further racial tension.

In 1883, a statute was passed prohibiting any more Chinese from entering the country and barring those already there from applying for citizenship. Most people believed that the cheap labour of the Chinese was a serious economic problem for the United States. The Celluloid Company decided to use the then political climate of opinion in the image they used on their business card - "No More Chinese Cheap Labor". And, in fact, the card looks more like a political cartoon than a product promotion tool.  It has 'Lady Invention', dressed in the American flag, telling them to go, with Uncle Sam in the background looking on approvingly.

So then what lesson can we draw from this? Maybe it is that nitrocellulose is a powerful explosive but, when mixed with camphor to create Celluloid, it becomes an agent for social change even more powerful.

Paul Buckingham

26 May 2020

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