Undark.org — In the closing months of World War II, Americans talked nonstop about how and when the war would end, and about how life was about to change. Germany would fall soon, people agreed on that. Opinions varied on how much longer the war in the Pacific would go on.
Amid the geopolitical turmoil, a small number of people and newspapers chattered about the dawn of another new age. A subtle shift was about to change the fabric of people’s lives: cork was about to lose its dominance as a cornerstone of consumer manufacturing to a little-known synthetic substance called plastic.
In 1939, the future arrived at the World’s Fair in New York with the slogan, “The World of Tomorrow.” The fairground in Queens attracted 44 million people over two seasons, and two contenders laid claim to being the most modern industrial material: cork and plastic.
For decades, cork had been rising as the most flexible of materials; plastic was just an intriguing possibility. The manifold forms of cork products were featured everywhere, from an international Paris Exhibition to the fair in Queens, where the material was embedded in the Ford Motors roadway of the future.
Meanwhile, plastic made a promising debut, with visitors getting their first glimpse of nylon, Plexiglas, and Lucite. Souvenirs included colorful plastic (phenolic resin) pencil sharpeners molded in the form of the fair’s emblematic, obelisk-shaped Trylon building. Visitors also picked up celluloid badges and pen knives, and a Remington electric razor made of Bakelite, along with plastic ashtrays, pens, and coasters.
In the months after the fair, as U.S. entry into the war became inevitable, the government grew concerned by American dependence on cork, which was obtained entirely from forests in Europe. The United States imported nearly half of the world’s production.
People in their 50s today remember when a bottle cap included a cork sliver insert to seal it. But in 1940, cork was in far more than bottle caps. It was the go-to industrial sealant used in car windshield glazing, insulation, refrigerated containers, engine gaskets, and airplanes. In defense, cork was crucial to tanks, trucks, bomber planes, and weapon systems. As the vulnerability for the supply of this all-purpose item became clear with the Nazi blockade of the Atlantic, the government put cork under “allotment,” or restricted use prioritized for defense. Information about cork supplies became subject to censorship…
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