X is for Xylonite

The British Xylonite Company pioneered in early plastics production.  As the market expanded in the 1870s its factory and workers’ village at Brantham was built.  It produced cellulose nitrate, which was combined with the plasticizer camphor to produce Xylonite.  The cellulose nitrate and plasticizer combination, also known as celluloid, was the first of a long line of what we refer to today as “plastics.”

Xylonite was very versatile and could be used to make photographic films and a wide range of domestic articles, which proved to be effective substitutes for wood, horn, ivory and tortoiseshell.  Xylonite had one main drawback – it was flammable when heated to around 150°C.  The films could combust in a projector if the equipment got too hot, and the chemists had to be mindful of the hazards it presented to their factory workers. Despite this, the British Xylonite Company became probably the first British company to manufacture a plastic material successfully.  Suffolk Record Office holds a significant portion of the firm’s archive under reference HC410.