National Plastics Center and Museum (Closed)
Leominster used to be known as Comb City. Now it's known as Plastic City, and the region is loaded with companies in the business of plastic. The industry and privately funded National Plastics Center reflects the city's pride.
The first displays one sees are of plastic lawn pink flamingos, invented and manufactured in Leominster, and of a plastic afghan "hand-crocheted in the 1970s by Joan Lachapelle of Leominster."
The resident "Plastorian" at the Center is full of interesting plastic facts. He tells us that John Wesley Hyatt, "grandfather of the plastics industry" and inventor of the celluloid billiard ball, was on the short list to have a rest stop named for him on the New Jersey Turnpike, alas, then repeatedly passed over for the honor.
But the pink flamingo story is where local pride shines like a semiprecious polymer. Don Featherstone, the artist/sculptor who in 1957 invented that particular plastic lawn ornament at Union Products, also developed a lot of other lawn animals. Hoping to hit the jackpot, he was stunned by the public's preference. "He thought it was going to be ducks. but people kept buying the flamingos." The flamingo frenzy started, and the money rolled in. Featherstone stayed with the company and eventually bought it.
The Plastics Center is kind of sterile and, well, plastic-ky, in a manner that bespeaks creation by committee and avoidance of the controversial. At the same time, little touches of whimsy leak through microscopic pores -- a set of female mannequin legs jutting into the air to display "nylons," or a cabinet filled with bulbous-headed plastic toy people.
Much space is given to "public awareness and education," particularly for children. A special gallery on "Plastics in Medicine" makes you wonder how high the mortality rate would shoot up without plastic stretchers, neck braces, surgical supplies,tubing and myriad other wonders.
"Be a part of our family," the brochure entreats, and the attempt to balance plastic innovation zeal with the industry's environmental responsibilities is translucent. A number of displays point out the wonderful things that can be made from recycled plastic, but none point out that most plastic is just thrown away by a public that takes plastic for granted. "Plastic decays," the Plastorian tells us, but we suspect that none of us will outlive the exhibits at the National Plastics Center.
The Plastics Hall of Fame, on the second floor, began in 1972. There are dozens of the enshrined, including #1, John Wesley Hyatt. Other notables are John Grebe, inventor of the Styrofoam cup; Nathaniel C. Wyeth, inventor of plastic soda bottles; Raymond Boyer, inventor of Saran Wrap; Mario Macca Ferri, inventor of the plastic guitar; Earl Silas Tupper, inventor of Tupperware; and Raymond Seymour, inventor of plastic Band-Aids.
If nothing else, a tour through the Hall of Fame injection-molds our minds with a new sensitivity to plastic -- it's everywhere, in more places than we ever suspected. And in order to make things turn out as rosy as the National Plastics Center suggests, absolutely nothing should be thrown away.