Action Man and the black snowflakes


In the olden days of not really very long ago, in the Midlands, where I grew up, we used to make stuff.  Lots of it.  Every day throughout the greater part of the last century, hordes of people set off for work, wearing overalls and carrying sandwiches in a tin.  One by one they turned in at factory gates, clocked on, rolled up their sleeves and got ready to spend their day producing things.  At one end of the building, lorries drove in and unloaded sacks and crates of raw materials.   At the other end of the building recognisable objects emerged to be put onto other lorries, sent off and sold.

Meanwhile, outside, up on the rooftops of the surrounding streets, blackbirds and sparrows lifted their tiny heads to the heavens, opened their beaks and er . . . coughed their tiny lungs out.   Yes, there was a lot of work and purpose in those days but screw up your eyes and you could see small black particles hanging in the air like the evil cousins of those nice, clean, white snowflakes that make everywhere look so nice in winter.  Every quarter of every town smelled richly different.  When the wind blew the air from one place to another, the chemical reactions crackled in your ears and the air quality meters went off the scale.  As least, they would have done if there had been any air quality meters.

The Cascelloid factory was established in Leicester in 1919 by Alfred Pallet, then aged only 18. Those were the days when a chap with enterprise and the nerve to experiment could soon find himself with a thriving business on his hands.  The company began by manufacturing a limited range of decorative items from celluloid – at the time the only plastic known.  Woolworths was the earliest major stockist of Cascelloid products and their business enabled Pallet to grow his company.  As the technology developed, Cascelloid went on to make a wide variety of goods in many different plastics, eventually becoming a major employer in the city.  In the 1960s, Cascelloid became Palitoy, manufacturer of such iconic British toys as Action Man, Tiny Tears, and Tressy.  

Dolls in production at Cascelloid, 1951. Photo: Kurt Hutton

If you look at this rather spooky photo of dolls’ heads in production at Cascelloid in 1951 though, you can easily surmise that, however appealing the final product, the factory probably did not make a positive contribution to the sweet fresh air of Leicestershire.

This little commemorative box was made to be given to dignitaries attending the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth to the Cascelloid factory in 1946 (see inscription on box lid in photo alongside).  At the time Cascelloid had only just returned to civil production.  For the previous few years, the factory had been engaged in production of goods for the war effort, including parts for bombs and gas masks.  No doubt the royal visit was in part to thank the company for that.  During their visit, the King and Queen were shown the new injection moulding process.  A vision of the future – anything you want in any shape and colour you like.

The box is of such a smart, modernist design that must have been really rather special in 1946. The lid and the base are made of a  hard, blue, translucent plastic fixed to a metal carcass.  Presumably the plastic, if not the whole box, was made by Cascelloid itself.   The box looks fairly ordinary now but it is hard to think of anything quite so “modern” being made commercially in the UK at the time (not that this was a production item of course).   The most striking thing about it is the neatness of line and materials.   It has an almost clinical purity and looks like it could have been made to hold a set of small surgical instruments.  In fact, I’m pretty sure it was made to hold cigarettes.  There’s got to be a metaphor there somewhere.

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