Stephen Fenichell's Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century traces the history of plastic from the early days of industrial chemistry. Fenichell writes with obvious knowledge and interest about the advent of synthetic materials and the often extraordinary and colorful scientists that ushered them in. Ranging as widely as the applications for plastic materials -- photography, mass production, food preservation, packaging, insulation, upholstery, clothing, even art -- Plastic describes scientific advances, but it never loses sight of its purpose as a social history.
Norman Mailer, an enemy of plastic, wants this book to be an indictment of the material we love to hate. "At last!" he cries triumphantly in a blurb for the book, "For anyone who hates plastic and likes good writing, this is the book to satisfy your anger, your pleasure, and your instinctive judgment, and all at once." Fenichell sympathetically describes Mailer's efforts to educate about the dangers of plastic, and he reports plastics fires throughout the history of their use, from flammable clothing and movie film in the 19th century to devastated plastic-appointed floors in skyscrapers just a few years ago.
Fenichell also speaks plainly about the plastics industry's insensitivity to worker safety and at best moderate commitment to environmentalism, but Plastic doesn't even glance in the muckraking tradition. Fenichell himself describes a failed attempt to exorcise plastic from his life (from his bathroom, actually), and the book ends on an upbeat note, describing efforts to recycle plastic and a visit to the National Plastics Center and Museum in Leominster, Massachusetts (bring a plastic milk jug, and they'll make it into seven key rings for you.)
Plastic is packed with facts, from the origin of Silly Putty to a list of the garments that made up Charles Goodyear's rubber suit. The book also includes several digressions that follow the sometimes strange lives of plastics pioneers. These digressions can seem long, and Fenichell doesn't follow a strict chronological order to his segments, but Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century is always entertaining and accessible, and it always comes back to the impact of synthetic plastic materials on American life.