Collections 102, part 2: how do I store… vintage plastics

So last week tackled preservation materials and storage environment best suited for maintaining heirlooms and treasures at home. If you haven’t seen it, check it out real quick before you read this.

Vintage plastics

Whether Bakelite jewelry, celluloid toys, PVC fashion dolls, or mid-century kitchen chairs, plastics can be particularly tricky to store and preserve long term.

The quick version:

  • Don’t store them in sealed plastic containers or bags
  • Store them flat and avoid jostling or temperature fluctuation
  • Avoid cleaning with water or other wet solvents. Wipe with a dry micro fiber cloth
  • Odor indicates active degradation: sickly sweet “plasticy”/camphor/vinegar

The scenic route:

Cleaning: The best method for cleaning most plastic is simply to wipe it with a clean, dry microfiber cloth. Generally avoid cleaning with water, solvents and solvent vapors (blue window cleaner). These products promote stress cracking and instability.

Storage: All plastic off gasses and releases acidic vapors. It is that odd smell in a new car or a new shower curtain. Never store plastic in sealed plastic bags. Plastic needs to breath as it ages, otherwise acid builds up and has nowhere to go. This can be expressed as odor, stickiness, oozing, or crumbling..

Take this bathing cap, for example. As recently as 2008, it looked like the image on the left. Even stored in an archival box, eight years has been rough on this object. It has since been rehoused on open shelving in a custom mount to be monitored more routinely.

Store in a place with stable temperature and humidity levels inside your home, like a closet (not in the attic, garage or unfinished basement). The best way to store vintage plastic is to lay it out flat in one layer in a vented, unbuffered box. For delicate or small items like jewelry, loosely nest items in unbuffered tissue (no tape). The tissue will need to be changed every few years or as it discolors. Avoid flexing, vibration and direct handling of fragile pieces. Wear disposable gloves if weeping acid or any liquid is present.

Do not store plastics on buffered paper. It will do this:

picture10Celluloid nitrate mirror; Williams and Fenn, “Care of plastics and rubber,” p.3A

Buffered acid free tissue accelerates deterioration due to its alkaline chalk layer. It reacts with the acid and creates a wet environment. The wetness promotes more acid and further deterioration of the object.




The only other recommendation is to store celluloid away from the rest of your plastics collection. Celluloid is notoriously unstable, prone to off gassing and spontaneous cracking. These acidic vapors will affect other plastics in nearby proximity and can set off a chain reaction of deterioration.

That wraps up another post. Stay tuned for next week’s Collections 102, part 3: how do I store… textiles.

Published by Raupp Museum

The Raupp Museum is a local history museum serving the community of Buffalo Grove, Illinois and surrounding areas. The museum's three galleries showcase Buffalo Grove's history from the early 1830s to the present. Educational programs are available for school groups, scout groups, and adult clubs.

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