S.K. has an antique doll with spectacles that looks rather intelligent but haughty. I am amused to write about dolls with spectacles — and why that became a fashion in the first quarter of the 20th century.
The history of spectacles is embodied in this doll. Since the 13th century, humans have had vision aids, such as the single glass, called a “quizzing” glass; the double glass, called the “scissor” glass; and the spectacles we wear today, called “temple” frames. S.K.’s doll wears the “new” fashion of celluloid temple glasses — celluloid used for eyeglasses was a new thing in those days. This doll is fashionable — she is wearing the latest.
To understand this doll, we have to understand the revolution that was semi-synthetic, moldable thermoplastics, invented in the latter part of the 19th century.
It all started with billiard balls. Elephants were dying in record numbers as billiards was gaining in popularity and the material used to make the balls was ivory. A concerned billiard company offered a reward to any scientist who could offer a substitute for ivory in billiard balls. John Wesley Hyatt (1837-1920) won the prize for his invention of a ball of shellac and bone dust, then refined the process to create a better ball of cotton paper, shellac and camphor, coated with collodion. (Yes, that is the same chemical used for wet plate photography of the era.)
Hyatt cornered the market on cheap sustainable billiard balls, and then he branched out, forming the Celluloid Manufacturing Co. to make false teeth. Throughout his life in Newark, N.J., Hyatt invented many things; at one point, he held 236 patents, second to Thomas Edison.
Manufacturers who used expensive ivory took notice. Soon, companies used celluloid to make the (once-ivory) handles of knives, the backs of brushes and accompanying dresser sets, chess pieces, umbrella handles and, because it could be heat molded, eyeglasses. Hence, the bespectacled baby doll.
If your doll did not come complete with celluloid eyeglasses, you could order a pair via mail order for 15 cents. And you could buy yourself a pair for about the same amount. All of a sudden, eyeglasses, once made of gold or silver, were affordable.
Hyatt, however, never claimed the prize money. He was too busy inventing. His final accolade came in 1973, 53 years after his death. That year, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Billiard Congress of America.
Celluloid took over the decorative arts world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Girls could afford fancy costume jewelry that was bright and durable, made from this material. Men could afford to dress with upright collars of celluloid insets. Children could play with colorful toys. Everyone could have a fancy dresser set, or pair of dice, or, in an alarming turn of fate, sport a match safe (to hold matches with an outside striker) made of celluloid.
Why do I say “alarming” about a match safe of celluloid? Celluloid is highly flammable. Hyatt’s Newark company experienced 39 fires in 36 years, killing nine workers, caused by heating that nitro-celluloid. Likewise, your match safe or your children’s toys had a propensity to swell and emit deadly camphor fumes if heated over 100 degrees. Tales were told of sitting by a fire in a dress with buttons on fire, or exploding shirt collars. As an alternative to laundering linen for your shirt collar and cuffs, a gentleman could attach a piece of molded celluloid that could be wiped down each day. The problem became severe if the same gentleman smoked. People who collected celluloid buttons could burn a house down if they kept the buttons in a sealed jar.
Finally, we come to the most flammable use of the material: celluloid film. The motion picture industry would not have been born if not for highly flammable celluloid film. A theater at the time had its risks. Moving pictures could set the whole theater on fire, and often did, and if the fire was extinguished, the theater was beset with fumes.
So we see S.K.’s little bespectacled doll tells the story of a material that was destined to take over the world, substituted for very expensive materials: ivory, tortoise shell, coral, amber, jade, sometimes inset with fake gems, sometimes with real gems. But the problem remained until the 1940s: It could set you on fire.
The value of the doll, beyond its notability as a harbinger of 1910 eyewear fashion, is $200.