Tuesday, November 1, 2011

From tabletop to cockpit: Boonton's plastic past

This past weekend's freak snowstorm and follow-up tree damage kept us from making any lengthy road trips, but we found our way to another local town museum, this one run by the Boonton Historical Society. Located in the John Taylor building (no, not that John Taylor) on Main Street, the Boonton Museum contains a timeline of town events to 1903, plus artifacts from the Morris Canal and several fossils found during the construction of the Jersey City Reservoir. There's also a room for changing exhibits, presently housing vintage service uniforms from the armed forces and various scouting and Civil Defense organizations. Pretty cool stuff.

Despite all of that, though, my interest was grabbed most by something in the gift shop - an iconic Boonton relic that didn't even warrant a mention in the historical exhibits. Some of you may remember Boontonware, that miracle hard plastic material from which dishes, bowls and tableware were molded. A mix of Bakelite and formaldehyde, Boontonware is unbreakable and remarkably durable. In fact, my mom still has the dishes and bowls she purchased when I was a young kid. My very first (and for a long time only) memories of Boonton are of visiting the Boontonware store and picking out a cartoon-themed kiddie dining set consisting of a plate, cereal bowl and tumbler. They don't have those at the Boonton Museum, but they have the same design of salad and mixing bowls my mom still uses on a regular basis.

They're still making Boontonware somewhere in Ohio, which is a bit depressing, but, I guess, better than it not being made at all anymore. In checking it out, though, I've learned, though, that Boonton's participation in the early molded plastics industry also set the stage for its role in the electronics industry in the first half of the 20th century.

You'll recall that we recently found out about Jimmy Doolittle's historic instrument-driven flight at the Aircraft Radio Corporation testing field in Boonton. Part of the reason ARC and other radio pioneers located in the town was because they needed molded parts. Think of all of those radio chassis, dials and so forth that needed to be crafted to exact specifications, and it all makes sense. Thomas Edison had a similar process with his inventions: he had people on staff or nearby to design and craft parts for his creations and the machines that would mass produce the successful inventions. No doubt, the radio companies wanted their parts makers to be close by, to make any needed design adjustments quickly and efficiently before the radios went into production.

Did Jimmy Doolittle himself ever use Boontonware? There's no record to prove or disprove, but the U.S. Navy bought plenty of Boonton Molding's virtually indestructible tableware for use on their ships during World War II. In fact, the company coined the Boontonware brand after the war in an attempt to keep sales up after defense contracts expired. In any case, I think we can say with some certainty that Doolittle didn't use the same cartoon bowl I did growing up.

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