Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Unique Properties of Cellulose Acetate

You’ve probably heard by now about the demise of Giant Butter Jesus. The drive to Kentucky this year will not be the same without the dairy-like Divinity’s presence. You would have thought, though, that for the amount of time and money they invested in him that the church would have gone the extra mile and upgraded him to sturdier stuff than wood and styrofoam.

(Big Lex is going to be fiberglass, right? Right?)

Now, onto the stuff our stuff is made of: Tenite.

Tenite is the brand name for a family of cellulosic plastics created by the Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tennessee. It was formerly known as the Tennessee Eastman Corporation, a subsidiary of the Eastman Kodak Company. There are actually three different forms of Tenite: Cellulose Acetate (CA), Cellulose Acetate Butyrate (CAB), and Cellulose Acetate Propionate (CAP.) Breyers are usually made of the Cellulose Acetate form of Tenite; that’s not always been the case, but we’ll get to that in the second part of this discussion.

Cellulose Acetate was developed as a more stable and less flammable substitute for Cellulose Nitrate, or Celluloid. It was first used to manufacture photographic film and textiles: it’s the stuff Rayon is made of. The solid, moldable form of Cellulose Acetate was put on the market in 1932, and it basically made the plastic injection molding industry possible: prior to that, most plastics were either extruded, cast, or formed by hand, which made mass production labor intensive and time consuming.

Other plastics hit the market not long afterwards, including Tenite II, or Cellulose Acetate Butyrate, in 1938. Other companies came up with their own varieties of Cellulose Acetate, often with their own unique brand names.

Here’s the cover to a promotional brochure for Tenite, ca. 1940; one could easily imagine it sitting on someone’s desk at the Breyer Molding Company way back when. There were other booklets available on molding, and one on its properties/specifications, but I don’t happen to have either one in my archives - yet.

The brochure is lavishly illustrated; although we’re still several years before the model horse boom, there are some equine-themed items among the products displayed, including Bergen cowboys, and a Lone Ranger Yo-yo!

The brochure goes into great detail about what an ideal material Tenite is for toy manufacturing:
"Tenite is also used for game pieces and toys. Chessmen, mahjong pieces, and poker chips may be injection molded complete in only a few seconds, eliminating hand-carving, machining, and polishing operations. Toy trains, airplanes, and automobiles are safer and less expensive to produce in Tenite than similar articles made by swedging nitrocellulose sheeting. Jackstones, toy soldiers, whistles, and babies’ teethers of Tenite are practically unbreakable, light in weight, and colorfully attractive."
Little wonder why Breyer decided to stick to Tenite when they began to mass-produce the Western Horse, eh? (Well, there weren’t a lot of other plastics to choose from, either - might as well go with what you know.)

Though the original form of Tenite has largely been eclipsed by more modern plastics, and by other forms of Tenite, there’s a reason why it’s still the go-to material for the model horse industry: it feels good! Or, as the brochure also explains:
"Because it is a low conductor of heat and takes an exceptionally smooth finish, molded Tenite is very pleasant to the touch."
It’s no coincidence that the other uses for Cellulose Acetate today include toothbrushes, eyeglass frames, and tool handles: all of these surfaces come in close, regular contact with the skin.

The text also notes that "in certain formulas, Tenite is virtually odorless and tasteless." An important consideration back then, but amusing today: isn’t the aroma part of the charm? Who among us hasn’t taken a long, deep sniff after deboxing a brand new arrival? I know I’m not the only one who’d be willing to buy a "New Breyer Horse" scented car air freshener.


Carrie said...

This is fascinating history; thank you! Have you ever heard of a brand of cellulose acetate named Hercocel? While researching a recent fleamarket find I read that Hartland used it for some of their early horses & the brand name amused me. Of course, I have now taken to calling my little black short-tailed Champ 'Herc'!

GWR said...

I love reading up on this kind of thing!

This is why I collect Breyers. Not only is there a fascinating history behind the company, but behind the very material it's made from.

Anonymous said...

That's so funny you mentioned Big Butter Jesus! LOL here in Ohio the goofiness of a church that had been in trouble with money dealing before to spend 250 grand on something that...well...gaudy...has been hotly debated. Spend that kind of money on foam? AH ha!
Anyway, I've always heard that tenite had corn oil in it. Is this true or false?
Thank you!
-An Ohio model collector