If you were to ask people what particular words symbolize the modern world, there’s little doubt that today’s word would be among them. For better and worse, today’s word can be credited with increasing the standard of living for many, being essential in everything from cars and computers to home products and modern medicine, even being the foundation of modern recycling; on the other hand, it has also become synonymous with cheap, disposable, non-biodegradable products, with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch being a prime example. Right now, looking around the room, you can likely easily identify objects made from a form of plastic, but, when it comes to the word itself, it’s not quite as “modern” as you may think.
Though we may think of the term mostly in the context of a specific solid product, its beginning is substantially older and more artistic. Coming from the Latin plasticus, which itself is derived from the Greek plastikos, meaning ‘able to be moulded or formed’, our term was initially imported into English via Richard Haydocke’s 1598 translation of Italian writer/painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo’s work, A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge, Caruinge & Buildinge, which, stating that: “Painting, Carving and Plastic [It. la plastica scultura] are all but one and the same art”, initially used the term to mean modelling or sculpting (typically clay or wax) figures.
Moving beyond a strictly artistic use, Sir Henry Wotton expanded the application of the term by using it to mean any application whereby soft, formless materials could be moulded or shaped, writing in The Elements of Architecture (1624) how: “Of this Plastic Art, the chief use with us is in the graceful fretting of roofs.”
Expanding on the idea of simply moulding a substance, the word was soon applied to moulding abstract thought. In other words, it came to signify how ideas and concepts could be adjusted, conformed, or fashioned to meet a certain need: this can be seen in theologian Edward Stillingfleet’s Origines Sacræ; or, A Rational Account of the Grounds of Christian Faith from 1662, where he writes that, “The great enquiry then is, how far this Plastic Power of the understanding, may extend itself in its forming an Idea of God.”
Back to art and actual physical production half a century later, instead of strictly being a part of the artistic or creative process, the term started to be used more generally, as simply being “related to or produced by modelling, moulding, or sculpture”. This can be seen in Giacomo Leoni’s 1726 translation of Leon Battista Alberti’s mid-15th century treatise De Re Aedificatoria (On the Art of Building), translating: “This sort of works, which are called plastic [It. che si chiamano lavori di Terra].”
From being related to modelling or moulding, it would take another 70 years for the term to again morph into meaning specifically the substance which was being moulded or formed into a shape that would later cool and solidify, first noted in the 1803 guide written by H. J. Sarrett entitled Tegg and Castleman’s New Picture of London for 1803-4, commenting that: “The ornaments are plastic, a composition something like plaster of Paris.”
Interestingly, in somewhat of a detour from the artistic and architectural usage – but still maintaining the idea of artistic form and structure – the usage of the term as part of the branch or surgery that deals with the construction/reconstruction of injured or malformed parts of the body, plastic surgery, originated in 1837, mentioned in the medical journal The Lancet (“Plastic surgery..a branch of surgery in which alone the operating surgeon becomes a real artist.”).
Approximately 5 decades after the first public demonstration of a man-made plastic by Alexander Parkes at the 1862 Great International Exhibition in London, we finally see the first mention of the term relating to an actual product, being an organic or synthetic material that is heated and set to a certain form, via a 1909 article in the Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry: “As an insulator..it [sc. Bakelite] is far superior to hard rubber, casein, celluloid, shellac and in fact all plastics”- written by Leo Hendrik Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite.
Having been seen as a positive up until then, the mid-20th century began to see a shift in the perception of plastic. Thanks in part to the first observations of plastic waste in the oceans and written works beginning to detail the use of potentially-hazardous chemicals in production, plastic’s reputation became somewhat negative, as can be seen in The Daily Telegraph’s usage of the term to denote something artificial, unnatural, and negative in a story from 22 May, 1963, writing that: “The plan’s promoters must not take it amiss if, winking an eye, some of our elder oysters inquire whether plastic houses might not connote plastic people.”
So, have we moulded plastic or has it moulded us?