OVERVIEW OF THE COLLECTION
Title: Grace Jeffers Collection of Formica Materials
Collection Date(s): 1913-2003
Extent and Forms of Material: 13 cubic feet: includes 11 oversize folders and videotapes (43 boxes)
Creator: Grace Jeffers
Abstract: The Grace Jeffers Collection of Formica Materials consists of textual files, photographs, slides, negatives, drawings, blueprints, posters, advertisements, product brochures, newsletters, and informational pamphlets documenting the history of the Formica Corporation and the use of Formica brand plastic laminate.
Collection Number: AC0565
Processing Note: Processed by Angela Fritz (intern), August 1997; John M. Murphy (intern), June 1998; supervised by Alison L. Oswald, archivist.
INFORMATION FOR USERS OF THE COLLECTION
Conditions Governing Access: The collection is open for research use.
Physical Access: Researchers must handle unprotected photographs with gloves. Researchers must use reference copies of audio-visual materials. When no reference copy exists, the Archives Center staff will produce reference copies on an “as needed” basis, as resources allow.
Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use: Copyright held by the Smithsonian Institution. Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Reproduction permission from Archives Center: fees for commercial use.
Preferred Citation: [Title and date of item], Grace Jeffers Collection of Formica Materials, 1913-2003, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, box number X, folder number XX, digital file number XXXXXXX
IN-DEPTH INFORMATION ABOUT THE COLLECTION
Administrative/Biographical History: Since its founding in 1913, the history of the Formica Company has been marked by a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship. The history begins with the discovery of Formica by two men who envisioned the plastic laminate as breakthrough insulation for motors. Later, Formica became a ubiquitous surfacing material used by artists and architects of post-modern design. The various applications of the plastic laminate during the twentieth century give it a prominent role in the history of plastics, American consumerism, and American popular culture.
The Formica Company was the brainchild of Herbert A. Faber and Daniel J. O’Conor, who met in 1907 while both were working at Westinghouse in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. O’Conor, head of the process section in the Research Engineering Department, had been experimenting with resins, cloth, paper, and a wide array of solvents in an effort to perfect a process for making rigid laminate sheets from Kraft paper and liquid Bakelite. O’Conor produced the first laminate sheet at Westinghouse by winding and coating paper on a mandrel, slitting the resulting tube, and flattening it on a press. The finished product was a laminated sheet with the chemical and electrical properties ofBakelite that were cut into various shapes and sizes. O’Conor applied for a patent on February 1, 1913, but it was not issued until November 12, 1918 (US Patent 1,284,432).Since the research was done on behalf of Westinghouse, the company was assigned the patent, and O’Conor was given one dollar, the customary amount that Westinghouse paid for the rights to employees’ inventions.
Herbert Faber, Technical Sales Manager of insulating materials, was excited about O’Conor’s discovery. Faber saw limitless possibilities for the new material. However, he quickly became frustrated by Westinghouse’s policy limiting the sale ofthe laminate to its licensed distributors. After failing to persuade Westinghouse to form a division to manufacture and market the new material, Faber and O’Conor created their own company. On May 2, 1913, the first Formica plant opened in Cincinnati, Ohio. On October 15, 1913, the business incorporated as the Formica Insulation Company with Faber as president and treasurer and O’Conor as vice-president and secretary. The company began producing insulation parts used in place of or “for mica,” the costly mineral that had been used in electrical insulation.
Like most new companies, Formica had modest beginnings. Faber and O’Conor faced the challenge of looking for investors who would let them maintain control over the company. Finally, they met J. G. Tomluin, a lawyer and banker from Walton, Kentucky, who invested $7,500 for a one-third share in the Formica Company. Renting a small space in downtown Cincinnati, Faber and O’Conor began work. The company’s equipment list consisted of a 35-horsepower boiler, a small gas stove, and a variety of homemade hand screw presses. By September 1913, Tomluin had brought in two more partners, David Wallace and John L. Vest. With the added capital, O’Conor, Faber, and Formica’s eighteen employees began producing automobile insulation parts for Bell Electric Motor, Allis Chalmers, and Northwest Electric.
Initially, the Formica Company only made insulation rings and tubes for motors. However, by July 4, 1914, the company obtained its first press and began to produce flat laminate sheets made from Redmenol resin. Business gradually grew, and by 1917 sales totaled $75,000. Fueled by World War I, Formica’s business expanded to making radio parts, aircraft pulleys, and timing gears for the burgeoning motor industry. In the years that followed, Formica products were in high demand as laminate plastics replaced older materials in washers, vacuum cleaners, and refrigerators. By 1919, the Formica Company required larger facilities and purchased a factory in Cincinnati.
During this time, patent battles and legal suits emerged to challenge Formica’s success. On June 11, 1919, Westinghouse sued Formica for patent infringement on its laminated gears; Formica won. Later that year, Westinghouse brought two new lawsuits against Formica. The first was for a patent infringement on the production of tubes, rods, and molded parts; the second was over an infringement based on a 1913 patent assigned to Westinghouse through O’Conor. Formica prevailed in both suits.
Legal battles did not deter the company. Having to defend itself against a giant corporation gave Formica a reputation as a scrappy contender. Finally, Faber and O’Conor made a quantum leap in 1927, when the company was granted a U.S. patent for a phenolic laminate utilizing lithographed wood grains of light color, forming an opaque barrier sheet which blocks out the dark interior of the laminate. In 1931, the company received two more patents for the preparation of the first all paper based laminate and for the addition of a layer of aluminum foil between the core and the surface, making the laminate cigarette-proof. These patents would allow Formica to move from a company dealing primarily with industrial material to the highly visible arena of consumer goods.
In 1937, Faber had a severe heart attack which limited his activity within the company. O’Conor continued as president, encouraging new product lines, including Realwood, as a laminate with genuine wood veneer mounted on a paper lamination with a heat-reactive binder. With the introduction of Realwood and its derivatives, manufacturers started using Formica laminate for tabletops, desks, and dinette sets. By the early forties, sales of Formica laminate were over 15 million dollars. The final recipe for decorative laminate was perfected in 1938, when melamine resins were introduced. Melamine was clear, extremely hard, and resistant to stains, heat, light, less expensive than phenolic resins. It also made possible laminates of colored papers and patterns.
Due to World War II, Formica postponed the manufacturing of decorative laminate sheets. Instead, the company made a variety of war-time products ranging from airplane propellers to bomb buster tubes.
The post-World War II building boom fueled the decorative laminate market and ushered in what would come to be known as the golden age for Formica. The company, anticipating the demand for laminate, acquired a giant press capable of producing sheets measuring thirty by ninety-six inches for kitchen countertops. Between 1947 and 1950, more than 2 million new homes were designed with Formica brand laminate for kitchens and bathrooms.
Formica’s advertising campaigns, initially aimed at industry, were transformed to speak to the new decorative needs of consumer society, in particular the American housewife. Formica hired design consultants, Brooks Stevens, and, later, Raymond Loewy who launched extensive advertising campaigns. Advertising themes of durability, cleanliness, efficiency, and beauty abound in promotional material of this time. Advertisers promised that the plastic laminate, known as “the wipe clean wonder,” was resistant to dirt, juices, jams, alcohol stains, and cigarette burns. Atomic patterns and space-age colors, including Moonglo, Skylark, and Sequina, were introduced in homes, schools, offices, hospitals, diners, and restaurants across America.
The post-war period was also marked by expansion, specifically with the establishment of Formica’s first international markets. In 1947, Formica signed a licensing agreement with the British firm the De La Rue Company of London for the exclusive manufacture and marketing of decorative laminates outside North America, and in South America and the Pacific Basin. In 1948, Formica changed its name from the Formica Insulation Company to the Formica Company. In 1951, Formica responded to growing consumer demand by opening a million square foot plant in Evendale, Ohio, devoted to the exclusive production of decorative sheet material. In 1956, the Formica Company became the Formica Corporation, a subsidiary of American Cyanamid Company. A year later, the international subsidiaries that Formica formed with De La Rue Company of London were replaced by a joint company called Formica International Limited.
The plastic laminate was not merely confined to tabletops and dinette sets. Formica laminate was used for skis, globes, and murals. Moreover, well-known artists and architects used the decorative laminate for modernist furniture and Art Deco interiors. In 1960, Formica’s Research and Development Design Center was established, adjacent to the Evendale plant, to develop uses for existing laminate products. In 1966, the company opened the Sierra Plant near Sacramento, California. Such corporate expansion enabled Formica to market its laminates beyond the traditional role as a countertop surface material.
In 1974, Formica established its Design Advisory Board (DAB), a group of leading designers and architects. DAB introduced new colors and patterns of laminate that gained popularity among artists and interior designers in the 1980s. In 1981, DAB introduced the Color Grid, a systematic organization of Formica laminate arranged by neutrals and chromatics. The Color Grid was described as the first and only logically arranged collection of color in the laminate industry. DAB also developed the Design Concepts Collection of premium solid and patterned laminates to serve the needs of contemporary interior designers.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the corporation continued to produce laminates for interior designers, artists, and architects. In 1982, Formica introduced COLORCORE, the first solid-color laminate. Due to its relatively seamless appearance, COLORCORE was adopted by artists for use in furniture, jewelry, and interior design. The introduction of COLORCORE also marked the emergence of a wide variety of design exhibitions and competitions sponsored by the Formica Corporation. In 1985, Formica Corporation became independent and privately held. Formica continues to be one of the leading laminate producers in the world with factories in the United States, England, France, Spain, Canada, and Taiwan.
For additional information on the history of the Formica Corporation, see:
DiNoto, Andrea. Art Plastic: Designed for Living. New York: Abbeville Press, 1985.
Fenichell, Stephen. Plastic: The Making of a Synthetic Century. New York: Harper/Collins, 1996.
Jeffers Grace. 1998. Machine Made Natural: The Decorative Products of the Formica Corporation, 1947-1962. Master’s thesis. Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts.
Lewin, Susan Grant, ed. Formica & Design: From Counter Top to High Art. New York: Rizzoli, 1991.
Scope and Content: The Formica Collection, 1913-2003, consists of textual files, photographs, photo slides, drawings, blueprints, posters, advertisements, product brochures, informational pamphlets, and research notes documenting the history of the Formica Corporation and the use of Formica brand plastic laminate.
Series 1, Corporate Records, 1920-1992, 2003
Corporate Records, 1920-1992, is divided into seven subseries: Subseries 1, Annual Reports, 1949, 1966, 1988; Subseries 2, Correspondence and company identity, 1920-1988; Subseries 3, Corporation histories and timelines, 1949-1991, undated; Subseries 4, Newspaper clippings and articles, 1934-2003; Subseries 5, Awards, 1940s-1987; Subseries 6, Patent Information, 1925-1994; and Subseries 7, Photographs, 1927-1966. The materials do reflect highlights of the company’s history including correspondence, published histories, a variety of photographs of O’Conor and Faber, copies of patents for the plastic laminate, and clippings regarding labor strikes. Company cartoons, dinner invitations listing employees by years of service, trademark material, and a series of company logos found on stationery, calendars, and folders document the corporate culture of Formica between 1965 and 1995. The series includes a wide variety of photographs of Formica’s plant in Evendale, Ohio, and the establishment of the Research and Design Center in 1951. Other photographs cover Formica’s expansion in the international market, with images of the corporation’s factories in Australia, England, Spain, and Taiwan.
Series 2, Personnel Records, 1943-1992
This series includes a 1950s employee manual and a 1992 personnel manual describing Formica’s employment policy and procedures as well as information on employee benefits and services.
Series 3, Newsletters, Magazines, and Press Releases, 1942-1990
A wide array of publications are located in this series. Most notable are the bound volumes of the company’s quarterly magazine, This Formica World, 1950-1955. Documenting the golden age of Formica, this magazine contains a wealth of advertisements, articles introducing new products, and an editorial column written by Edward Hanley, the kitchen engineer. Articles such as “The Dinette Story,” “The Passing of the Maid,” and “The Case of the Tired Old Kitchens,” attest to the role Formica played in revolutionizing the kitchen in the 1950s. In addition to articles on home furnishings, This Formica World contains information on other products manufactured by Formica, including the digital voltmeter, the crown pulley, the Gyrotex bobbin, and insulation parts for motors.
Company newsletters include the Evendale Expansion Bulletin, Focus, Formica News Views, The Formician, Handing it to Hitler!, HQ, Info, Insight, The Laminate, Loud Speaker, and Formica Today, documenting the Design Advisory Board’s attempt to market product lines to contemporary interior designers during the late 1970s. Articles include “Furniture for Contemporary Living,” “A Kitchen in Chrome,” and “Office Landscaping Gone Elegant.”
Series 4, Product Information, 1948-1994
This series includes guides, product books, information manuals, samples, and Formica Facts, a product book containing technical specifications for plastic laminate dated 1988. These technical manuals and fabrication guides provide use and care guidelines, offer tips for handling and storage, and describe techniques for working with plastic laminate.
Catalogs, brochures, and samples provide information on new product lines, patterns, and colors of the surfacing laminate from 1965 to 1994. Formica’s product literature documents: atomic patterns and space-age colors of the 1960s, the top-selling laminates of sliced avocado, bittersweet, and harvest yellow of the 1970s, and the pastels and post-modern designs of the 1980s and 1990s. Catalog brochures, 1965-1970, parallel advertising campaigns of the time, featuring titles such as Join the Revolution for Easy Living; Join the Colour [sic] Revolution, and Of Course You Want a Formica Laminated Plastic Color-Kissed Kitchen. The series also includes color systems developed by Formica such as the Color Grid, Color + Color, and Color System/Color Compliment. These systems, developed by the Design Advisory Board in the early 1980s, enabled both distributor and consumer to mix and match samples of COLORCORE more effectively.
Series 5, Advertising and Sales Materials, 1913-2000
The advertising materials are divided into two subseries: Subseries 1, Advertising materials, 1913-2000 and Subseries 2, Sales materials, 1922-1993. The series contains scripts for television commercials such as Beauty and the Bath and King-TVS, and the Formica Kitchen Face-Lift Contest. Together with material found in This Formica World, the advertisements are most comprehensive for the years 1948-1962. Many of the oversized advertisements feature recurring characters including Mrs. America of the 1940s, Mr. and Mrs. Consumer of the 1950s, and the Formica Girl of the 1960s.
Information relating to Formica’s sales force can be found in campaigns and sales conferences. Material from 1953-1954 and 1986-1993 includes binders distributed to the Formica sales force which describe various product lines and national marketing campaigns. This series also contains a photo album documenting the 1953-1954 sales conference. Over eighty photographs document the company’s annual convention dinner celebration, convention booths entitled Do-It Your-Self with Formica, Bill Reilly’s Mobile Demonstration Unit, introduction of Formica’s Sunrise Line, the Formica runway show featuring models carrying Formica samples, sales skits, and the Formica Ad Rodeo.
Series 6, Subject Files, circa 1945, 1955-1991, 2002
The subject files are arranged alphabetically andconsist of material documenting the production, installation, and use of Formica brand plastic laminate. This series is comprised of photographs but includes informational material such as brochures, catalogs, menus, and articles documenting the use of plastic laminate. Photographs with accompanying narrative captions explain the production process from the Kraft paper roll to the completed sheet of laminate. Other photographs document Formica’s researchers and engineers conducting tests on the plastic laminate. The series also contains step-by-step photographs illustrating the home installation of Formica laminate on countertops in the 1960s.
The Subject Files document some of Formica’s unique home interior products, including the COLORCORE “dinated” kitchen, Formica’s model bath, and the vanitory. The vanitory, was a combination of a vanity and lavatory, heralded by Formica as the essential new bathroom fixture for women in the 1950s. This series contains photographs of a wide variety of vanitories, accompanied by Formica’s Beauty Board walls. The subject files also include material about Stephen’s House of Ideas. This thirteen room house, built in 1967, was conceived as the ultimate showroom for a wide variety of Formica’s decorative building products.
The subject files document the many uses of Formica outside the home, including hospitals, airports, boats, restaurants, and snack bars. For example, material on boats consists of two product catalogs, Formica: Material in Ships and The Formica Scene on the Queen Elizabeth 2. These catalogs depict the interiors of Rowan & Boden Limited cruise boats in 1965. In addition, material includes an article entitled “Formica is a Way of Life for Californians,” describing Miss Formica, a custom design ski racing boat.
The series also contains information on artists and jewelry designers, who worked with Susan Lewin, Formica’s creative director from 1986-1992. These files contain slides, photographs, and catalogs displaying the designer’s jewelry.
Series 7, Exhibits, 1981-1994
Material documenting design competitions and exhibitions sponsored by Formica is in the series Exhibits, 1981-1994, including correspondence, photographs, slides, exhibition catalogs, brochures, posters, press releases, and articles. The series highlights Formica-sponsored traveling exhibits including Surface & Ornament, Material Evidence: New Color Techniques in Handmade Furniture, and Surface and Edge. These exhibits featured interior designs, furniture and jewelry made from Formica’s 1980s product lines including COLORCORE, NUVEL, and SURELL. Material also covers the Contemporary COLORCORE Exhibition of 1986 and the corresponding tour of Japan and Taiwan. Additionally, the series features exhibitions carried out in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibit Service (SITES), the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, and a proposed Melrose Diner Exhibit at the National Museum of American History in 1987.
Series 8, Grace Jeffers Research Materials, 1987-1997
Grace Jeffers research materials contain notes, correspondence, printed publications and a copy of her Master’s thesis from Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts titled, Machine Made Natural: The Decorative Products of the Formica Corporation, 1947-1962, documenting the history and use of Formica.
Series 9, Audio Visual Materials, 1982-1995, undated
The audio visual materials include promotional videos documenting marketing research, fabrication demonstrations and technical updates, product line launches, and Formica’s display booths at home-building trade shows. The series contains interviews with Susan Lewin discussing the history of Formica Corporation, women in Formica advertisements, Formica jewelry, and interior design.
System of Arrangement: The collection is arranged into nine series.
Series 1, Corporate Records, 1920-1992, 2003
Acquisition Information: This collection was assembled by Grace Jeffers, historian of material culture, primarily from materials given to her by Susan Lewin, Head of Formica’s New York design and publicity office when the office closed in 1995. The collection was donated to the Archives Center by Grace Jeffers in September 1996.
Accruals: Grace Jeffers donated an additional seven videotapes in April 1998 and six cubic feet of material in 2005.
Related Archival Materials: Researchers interested in the history of plastics should also consult the following Archives Center collections: Leo Baekeland Papers, 1881-1968 (AC0005), DuPont Nylon Collection, 1939-1977 (AC0007); J. Harry DuBois Collection on the History of Plastics, circa 1900-1975 (AC0008); and Earl Tupper Papers, circa 1914-1982 (AC0470).
Related Artifacts: The Division of Science, Medicine and Society holds artifacts related to this collection.
Plastics industry and trade—1920-2000