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NPE's Origin Story, Promoting And Defending Plastics I

Mar 05, 2018

Can you believe that at one time plastic was too fantastic for its own good? It seems that so much effort went into promoting plastic as the “material of a thousand uses” that expectations were running high that it would soon become a plastic world. Numerous articles in the popular press trumpeted plastics as the answer to everything. The efforts to promote this new material in the 1930s had created a monster by the end of the war. The New York Times even ran a long feature in 1943 that portrayed “life in a plastic world,”  as recounted in American Plastic: A Cultural History by Jeffrey Meikle (Rutgers University Press, 1995).

William T. Cruse, who took over the editorship of Modern Plastics in 1940, was also a “courtesy” member of the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI). When “SPI’s executive secretary became ill in October 1941, the board asked Breskin [the owner of Modern Plastics] to release Cruse” from the publication so he could fill the SPI vacancy. The hype of plastic as the material that can be and do anything concerned Cruse, who “within a week” of the Times article began an effort to “neutralize plastic utopianism,” writes Meikle. Cruse complained of "too many Sunday supplement features portraying plastic as a ‘miracle whip’ material with which anything can be done." That’s when a “deglamorization” program began to reduce the expectations of plastic.

About that same time, SPI was planning a national plastics exposition to try to rein in the plastics enthusiasm of consumers, who by 1946 were discovering that plastic products could be really great or just plain junk that broke easily. In 1946, SPI put on the first National Plastics Exposition in New York. “Nothing can stop plastics,” declared [SPI] President Ronald Kinnear as he opened the show by cutting through a Vinylite film sealing the entrance,” writes Meikle.

That show had 200 displays and wecomed 20,000 attendees on the first day. Meikle noted that attendance would have been much higher except that fire regulations forced repeated closing of the doors. And that was just industry people! “Three days later, when the general public was first admitted, people lined up four abreast for several blocks” to get into NPE, “hungry for something new and evidently plastics are the answer," commented one show visitor. Another said, “the public are certainly steamed up on plastics.”

According to the accounts in Meikle’s book, the exhibitors were as fired up over plastics as the general public. One exhibitor “pronounced the exhibition ‘the first show where we really got our money’s worth, because customers were ‘showing a terrific interest . . . the only question is when can you deliver?’”
From those humble but very exciting beginnings, a plastics trade show culture was born. While NPE may have begun with the goal of “deglamorizing” plastic and educating people that it’s only a great material if it’s used for the right application, it became a galvanizing event for industry professionals looking for the next big plastics processing technology and the next profitable application that would wow consumers.

A particularly notable NPE date was Nov. 22, 1963, the day of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. John C. Reib, the founder of auxiliary equipment Conair, mentions in his history book, The Making of Conair, that “people simply left the show, and we exhibitors started tearing down our booths.”