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Dawn of the Age of Plastics

A colorful array of plastic caps illustrates a new era that began in the 1940s.

In the closing months of World War II, Americans talked about how and when the war would end, and about how life was about to change.

Amid the geopolitical turmoil, some 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 this feature of Undark magazine, “What I Left Out,” I share a story that did not make it into

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. There, 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.

For the following years and through the war , the two materials would vye for the title of modern material. They would see their positions shift, for sometimes capricious reasons. The full story appeared in and Mother Jones.

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