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Camphor, a Plastic History: China, Taiwan, and Celluloid, 1868-1937

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Until the late nineteenth century camphor, extracted from the camphor tree cinnamomum camphora native to southeast China, Taiwan, and Japan, was a luxury commodity used for religious and medicinal purposes. That changed with the invention of celluloid plastic, the world’s first man-made plastic. From around 1870 forward camphor was used as an important industrial input to make celluloid, first for a variety of household goods, and then later as a backing for photographic roll film.

Current literature on camphor only mentions its modern industrial uses in passing, while literature on celluloid often omit its Asian origins. This dissertation seeks to fill that gap by relying on Qing dynasty records, British Parliamentary papers, archival materials from the Celluloid Manufacturing Co. and Eastman Kodak, as well as Republican-era Chinese periodicals. I argue that camphor was an essential commodity for the development of the twentieth century modern world, and that the supply of camphor was dependent upon the political and economic conditions of imperialism in East Asia.

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This item is under embargo until December 7, 2024.