Those who follow us know that outreach is a big part of what we do in the Campus Archaeology Program. Every year, CAP participates in several public outreach events including Michigan Archaeology Day, Grandparents University, ScienceFest, and more. These events are important because it gives […]
Author: Mari Isa
Take a moment to think about what kinds of materials you’d expect to find in a garbage dump from 2018. Did plastic immediately spring to mind? About 300 million tons of plastic are produced globally each year, only about 10% of which is recycled (1). Since mass production of plastic took off around 1950 an estimated 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste has been produced, much of which has ended up in landfills (1). We don’t encounter much plastic at the oldest sites on MSU’s campus. At sites dating to the 19th century, like Saints’ Rest and College Hall, we more frequently find glass, metal, and ceramics. At more recent sites, however, we begin to see more plastic in the archaeological record, reflecting the increased availability and use of plastic in everyday items. Several plastic artifacts were excavated at the Brody-Emmons Complex, the site of the East Lansing city landfill in the early 20th century.
Humans have long used natural substances with plastic properties, such as rubber and shellac, but man-made plastics are a fairly recent innovation. The first man-made plastic is attributed to British chemist Alexander Parkes (2). In 1856, Parkes acquired a patent for a product made from a plant material called cellulose treated with nitric acid and other chemicals. The product, called Parkesine, exhibited many useful properties: when hot it could be easily molded into various shapes, but when cool it was sturdy and durable. Unlike rubber, it could be industrially produced in large quantities (2).
Early plastics such as Parkesine and its successor, celluloid, involved the addition of chemicals to naturally occurring polymers (3). The first fully synthetic plastic wasn’t invented until 1907 when American chemist Leo Baekeland produced a plastic material through a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde. He called his phenolic resin “Bakelite,” polyoxybenzylmethyleneglycoanhydride to the chemistry nerds out there. Unlike celluloid, Bakelite is thermosetting; once molded, it retains its shape even if heated again (3).
Baekeland patented Bakelite in 1909 and formed the General Bakelite Company around 1910 (3). The company adopted the infinity symbol as its logo to match its slogan “a material of a thousand uses.” In fact, Bakelite did prove to have many uses. Due to its resistance to heat and electricity, it was particularly useful in the automotive and electrical industries. The earliest commercial use of Bakelite was in insulating bushings manufactured for the Weston Electrical Instrument Corporation in 1908. During World War I, Bakelite was used in everything from electrical systems to airplane propellers. As plastic began to be incorporated in electronics such as telephones and radios, these products became cheaper and thus more widely accessible (3). There were also many decorative and aesthetic uses for Bakelite. Blocks of Bakelite could be carved to create items like pipe stems, cigarette holders, and even jewelry (3). The look, weight, and sound of Bakelite pieces struck together are similar to ivory (4). For this reason, phenolic resins are still used in items such as billiard balls, dominos, and chess pieces (3).
One of the plastic artifacts associated with the East Lansing landfill is a small hand-held mirror we suspected might be made of Bakelite. People who have handled a lot of Bakelite can make an assessment based on subtle clues like sound and feel. Since I have not handled much of it myself, I turned to some of the other “tests” for Bakelite.
First I tried the smell test. This method involves heating the object – either by running it under hot water or rubbing it vigorously–and sniffing. Bakelite gives off a telltale formaldehyde smell (4). As I wanted to avoid damaging the artifact, I tried the rubbing approach. The mirror definitely smelled “weird” to me, but it was too faint for me to discern a specific scent.
Next I decided to try one of the visual methods for testing Bakelite. These methods involve swabbing a Q-Tip or white cloth dampened with certain chemicals against the object in question. If the object is Bakelite, it will turn the Q-tip yellow (4). Other early plastics, such as Lucite, do not produce this result. Chemicals typically used for testing Bakelite are Formula 409 and Simichrome metal polish (4). I couldn’t find Simichrome at my local hardware store, so I opted to try Formula 409. After gently cleaning the mirror to remove any dirt, Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright and I swabbed a Q-Tip sprayed with 409 against the back of the mirror. The Q-Tip turned faintly yellow, which seemed promising. After a bit of research, I discovered that some people have successfully used baking soda to test for Bakelite (5). I decided to try this method too, and added a bit of baking soda to a damp white paper towel. Voila! The paper towel turned yellow where it contacted the plastic. These tests seem to indicate that the mirror is Bakelite, which makes it the second Bakelite artifact identified in the Brody assemblage. A Sengbusch Self-Closing Inkstand with a Bakelite lid was also recovered in 2011.
Bakelite was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society in 1993 (3). As the world’s first synthetic plastic Bakelite is credited with ushering in the Polymer Age, also called the Age of Plastics (3). It is interesting to observe that we can see this landmark—and evidence of the dawn of the Age of Plastics —in the archaeological record of our campus.
Mason jars are having a moment. If you’ve attended a wedding (particularly the barn variety) or eaten at a brunch establishment in the last decade, chances are you’ve consumed a beverage out of a Mason jar. What the youngest among us may not realize is […]
Here at CAP we think a lot about different ways of sharing our research. We can—and do—present at conferences, give public lectures, and publish site reports and journal articles. While these avenues are great for communicating our work to other experts, they are probably not […]
Given one hour, how do you teach 300 7th graders to think like archaeologists? This was the challenge presented to us when a group of teachers contacted CAP about doing an interactive event to introduce their 7th grade social studies students to archaeology. Although CAP regularly does activity-based engagement with elementary school children, we did not have a ready-made activity appropriate for older students.
This event presented us with an opportunity to consider which aspects of archaeology we most wanted to share with young members of the public. Since we couldn’t teach 7th graders how to do archaeology in one hour in a classroom, we decided to focus on getting them to understand how archaeologists use material and contextual evidence to draw conclusions, and how archaeology can contribute unique information to our knowledge of the past.
Over the past few weeks, we developed a “site in a box” activity designed to give students an opportunity to think like archaeologists. We assembled boxes containing artifacts, site photos, and maps, with each box representing a “mystery” archaeological site. Lisa wrote in detail about our process in assembling these boxes on the blog last week. Students were instructed to work together, using all available evidence to complete two tasks. The first task was to identify the artifacts and discuss their potential uses. The second task was to use these answers to make larger inferences about the site: What type of site was it? What was the time period and geographic location of the site? What do the artifacts say about the people associated with the site? For example, how did they eat and procure food? How did they dress? Did they see any evidence of belief systems?
We debuted the new activity last Friday at the middle school. On the day of the event, we divided nine CAP representatives including Dr. Goldstein, Dr. Camp, all six CAP fellows, and one undergraduate volunteer across three classrooms to help run the activity. Each classroom of students was divided into five groups, each assigned a different box representing containing the materials from one of the mystery sites.
Each class was 55 minutes long. We typically took the first 10 minutes to explain the activity and answer a few questions. After this introduction, students had about 30-35 minutes to work in groups to complete the activity. During this time, CAP representatives walked around the room answering questions, helping stimulate discussion, and guiding students in identifying some of the trickier artifacts. During the last 15 minutes of class, each group presented their findings, selecting a few artifacts to share along with their conclusions about the site. Finally, they compared their answers with the site descriptions in the answer key.
We found this time frame short enough to keep students engaged throughout the entire class period, but long enough for them to answer most of the questions. Left to their own devices students tended to spend most of their time describing artifacts, so CAP representatives learned to help steer discussions toward interpretations at the halfway mark to keep them on track. While the students did well with most of the physical artifacts, we noticed we needed to clarify what to do with images of artifacts, as students often overlooked or struggled to identify these. In the future we might consider replacing these with physical artifacts or clearer images, along with explicit instructions to look at artifact images.
Overall, we felt that the activity was a success. The students were engaged, enthusiastic, and seemed to enjoy piecing together the puzzle we presented them. They asked thoughtful questions and came up with interesting interpretations about their sites. We were especially impressed with some of the connections they made based on what they had previously learned in social studies. Several students asked if the presence of corn and eggshells meant the people at their site were domesticating plants and animals.
Although preparation for this event took considerable investment of time and resources, it also presented an opportunity to develop a quality activity we could use for other events. These kits would be appropriate and interesting to audiences from middle school students to adults. Looking forward to our planned outreach events, this activity could easily be used for Grandparents’ University. Finally, putting together this activity made us think about how to convey what makes archaeology a unique and relevant source of information in a meaningful, yet manageable way.
Avid readers of the CAP blog might remember our excitement last year when we discovered a piece of yellow-green vaseline glass in the Gunson assemblage. The glass glowed bright green under black light, indicating it contained uranium. This week as we continued to sort through […]
For many of us today, laundry is a pretty simple affair: separate the lights from the darks, add detergent, and let the washing machine do its work. Before the advent of automatic washing machines and newfangled detergents with optical brighteners, laundry was more of an […]
Keeping with the theme of my last blog post on cosmetics, this week I dug into the history of some more grooming products recovered during excavations at Brody/Emmons Amphitheater, formerly the site of the East Lansing city dump from the 1920s to the early 1950s. Since my last post discussed cosmetic products most likely marketed to and used by women during this period, I decided to take this week to investigate hair care products that might have been used by men.
Four hair bottles of hair products were discovered in the Emmons assemblage. The bottles include 1) a tall, rectangular bottle with rounded shoulders and a long neck, embossed with the label “Wildroot” and vines on each side; 2) a square glass bottle with the remnants of a gold paper label reading “Wil—Brilli—”; 3) a small, squoval glass bottle with “Wildroot Company—Inc” embossed on one side and “Buffalo New York” on the other; and 4) a round glass bottle labeled “Vitalis” at the shoulder and base, with a metal cap.
To understand what these products were and how they might have been used, I first did some research into men’s hairstyles from the 1920s to the 1950s. In the 1920s, men almost always wore hats (1). Beneath the hat, the hair was kept pin-straight, slicked straight back, and shiny in a style sometimes nicknamed “patent leather” (1,2). In the 1930s, men wore their hair short around the ears and neck, with the longer hair at the top of the head parted to the side and kept sleekly in place (2). In the 1940’s, the short-back-and-sides hair cut remained popular (2,3). Practical, short-cropped military cuts were also common during and after World War II. The pompadour became fashionable in the 1940s and ‘50s, giving rise to the quiff made popular by stars like Elvis and James Dean (3,4). In order to wear these hairstyles, black men first had to undergo a painful process to chemically relax hair with congolene, a substance made from lye (5). Once straightened, the hair could be parted and combed flat or piled into a pompadour. These “conk” hairstyles (derived from the word “congolene”) fell out of favor in the 1960s with the Black Power era (5).
While the specifics of men’s hairstyles varied over the decades, the general principles of doing one’s hair remained the same. These styles involved keeping the hair neatly in place, often slicked back, and the shinier, the better. Hair tonic was often used to achieve these looks. The product held hair in place and made hair appear glossier, a look that was seen as a sign of health (6). Hair tonics were generally liquid with mineral oil, petroleum jelly, or wax as the primary ingredient. In addition to their use as styling products, hair tonics were advertised as hair care that was supposed to prevent dandruff and hair loss. Hair tonics lost favor in the 1960s with the introduction of gels and mousses that provided better hold with less grease (6). Two different brands of hair tonics are present in the Brody/Emmons trash context: Wildroot and Vitalis.
Wildroot was manufactured in Buffalo, New York from 1911 to 1959 (7). Wildroot hair tonic was oil-based, with ingredients including mineral oil, lanolin, and beeswax and was especially popular in the 1920s (8). So popular, in fact, that it had to protect its brand name from counterfeiters. A 1920 article from the Journeyman Barber chronicles a raid of Cleveland barbershops to confiscate counterfeit bottles of hair tonics, including Wildroot (9).
The tall, vine-embossed Wildroot bottle from the Brody/Emmons assemblage is most likely a hair tonic and dandruff remedy, similar to this one. The metal cap on the Emmons bottle indicates that it post-dates the 1920s, since advertisements for Wildroot hair tonic from the 1920s show a product with a glass stopper.
The square bottle with the gold label is Wildroot Brilliantine. I could find only few references to this particular product, but an advertisement from 1941 describes a product called “Wildroot Brilliantine” with added olive oil, probably for the purpose of increasing grease—I mean, shine. I have not yet found a good match for the third Wildroot bottle, so let us know in the comments if you know what this product is.
Advertisements for Wildroot reveal an interesting history of gendered marketing. Early advertisements for Wildroot were aimed at women. An ad from the 1920s warned women that bobbed hairstyles and tight hats were sure to cause baldness—unless, of course, one applied Wildroot to prevent hair loss. An ad from 1924 urges women to use Wildroot hair tonic on their husbands to prevent dandruff and baldness. By the 1930s, however, Wildroot was directing advertisements specifically at men, such as this one.
TheBrody/ Emmons assemblage also included a bottle of Vitalis, a product made by Bristol-Meyers that became popular in the 1940s (8). In contrast to Wildroot and other popular hair products of the time, Vitalis was alcohol-based. Its formula with “V7” was supposed to make hair shiny but not greasy. Ads that ran in the 40’s and 50’s promoted the “60-second Workout”: men were supposed to massage their hair with Vitalis for 50 seconds and comb for another ten to stimulate the scalp, prevent dryness, control dandruff, and prevent hair loss (8). The Vitalis bottle from the Brody assemblage probably postdates 1938 and looks similar to the one shown in this 1946 advertisement.
The cosmetic and hair care products from the Brody/Emmons assemblage have provided an interesting look into how men’s and women’s beauty routines have—and in some cases haven’t—changed over time (here’s looking at you, everyone with an undercut). If you enjoyed this blog post, don’t forget to check out my last post about cosmetic products from this site!
- “Tonic.” In Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Sherrow, Victoria, ed. Greenwood Press: Westport, Connecticut: 2006, pp. 374-375.
- “Good News for the Barbers of Cleveland and Vicinity.” The Journeyman Barber, Volume 16, No. 1. February, 1920. Accessed here
- Wildroot Advertisement. The Chain Store Age, Volume 17. August 1941, p.123. Accessed here.
A fun fact for freshmen: if you live in Brody, you might be living in a dump. To be more specific, from the 1920s to the early 1950s, parts of the area now occupied by Brody Complex once served as the site of the City […]