What would we do without glue? Well, it’s estimated that each person in U.S.A and the U.K. uses 18.2kgs of glue annually. I’m probably more of a Sellotape/Blu-Tack person myself, but those statistics sound impressive! The development of commercial synthetic glues dates from the 1920s and has taken us a long way from using flour and water as wallpaper paste to the point where modern super glues are able to surgically glue flesh wounds together (or accidentally glue your fingers together during your latest DIY project), or even take forensic fingerprints from glass or plastic surfaces.
It’s widely accepted that the first evidence of glue was a substance made by the Neanderthals ca.15000 years ago. They added animal fat to pigment to make water resistant cave paintings in Lascaux. Not to be left out, the Ancient Egyptians made use of similar animal glues in wooden furnishings and the production of papyrus, and the application of animal glue by the Ancient Greeks and Romans can still be seen today in mosaics and mended pottery. From this time until the innovations of the industrial revolution, glue was largely made from animal hides, bones, connective tissue (collagen) and hooves (not just from old horses that were sent to the glue factory). These organic sources were boiled and reduced to gelatine and could be used or dried and stored as a powder. The powder could be later mixed with water and cooked until the desired thickness was obtained (History of Glue 2016).
The first British glue patent was issued in about 1750 but, closer to home, the New Zealand Glue Company had been operating in Woolsten, Christchurch since before 1875. Christchurch’s drainage board petitioned the court for the factory to cease from discharging its effluent into the Heathcote River (Star 15/03/1918: 6, Sun 16/03/1918: 11).
From the industrial revolution to the 1920s both homemade and commercial adhesives were usually based on natural sources. Recipes required at least two basic components— a binder and a solvent. Extra ingredients were used to increase tack, improve water resistance, flexibility, strength, shelf life and repel insects (Cannon 2010). For instance, animal glue was often cooked with an acid such as vinegar or nitric acid to keep it liquid at room temperature (Cannon 2010). The addition of coagulated cow’s blood was also handy, as it became waterproof when heated. Other binders such as gelatin, fish glue, starch, flour, dextrin, and gum arabic (from the acacia tree), rubber, and egg albumen were also used (Cannon 2010).
Phew! As a reward for sticking with me for the scientific portion of this post – hold tight for a selection of these really great vintage glue jokes…
Funny right? Now for the specifics – the pot of glue that inspired this post was one that we have found a few times in Christchurch. It was manufactured by Gloy Glue during the early 20th century, (though this company was formed by the 1890s). The proprietor was A. Wilme Collier who operated his adhesive business from 8th Avenue Works, Manor Park, London. This company also manufactured special pastes for photographic purposes, as displayed at the British Industries Fair in 1922 (Blanco & Bull 2013).
The recipe for the vintage Gloy Glue formula is not available. This is often the case with patent records (which can be vague), and they sometimes included statements allowing the patent holder the right to change the formulation or substitute ingredients at will (Cannon 2010). However, Gloy was later reported to have contained dextrin (from starch), mixed with magnesium chloride – which is sometimes used as a coagulant to make products thicker and more viscous. Vegetable glues like this were popular for paper, as they are fast setting, but have a low bond strength (Cannon 2010: 18). Modern day internet reviews appear to be critical of Gloy Glue’s quality. But in my opinion, any manufacturing company that survives for over a century shows real stick-ability, so they must have been doing something right.
Perhaps their success was partly due to their catchy marketing – Gloy was first advertised in New Zealand newspapers in 1914, and was amusingly described as “A clean paste for clean people.” Enticing!
It may be that we come across adhesive bottles much more frequently than we are able to identify – they were often packaged in bottles that were the same as those used for ink, and the main defining characteristic of such a bottle would be a wide mouth to access its viscous contents (Lindsey 2016). As is the problem with most artefact identification, general shapes and typing can only take us so far – product manufacturers don’t always adhere to the status quo of shapes. For instance, here is another example of a Gloy glue pot: this type of wide mouth stone ware jar (without the Gloy label), could have contained any number of viscous products.
The type of adhesive pots that we most often see in our assemblages may also have originally contained mucilage – mucilage being the sticky substance found in plants like aloe vera. Although mucilage for adhesive purposes is generally made of seaweed, flax seed, bark and roots (Lindsey 2016).
Just like animal glue, mucilage is non-toxic. So in the 19th century it would have been fine for the weird kid at school to be eating paste – in fact, other usages for mucilage (that’s a mouth-full), was its common inclusion in cough medicine and as an alleviator of sore throats. See below for a homemade recipe for children’s cough syrup from 1907. I’m not sure how many of us have exotic South American plant species in our pantries – but hey, it’s organic!
Using slightly more common ingredients, here’s a 19th century recipe for mucilage that you can try yourself:
Within the New Zealand newspaper archives we can see the application of glue developing from more practical DIY uses – like plugging draughts in your floor (New Zealand Herald 29/08/1931: 6), and simple advertisements and recipes for strong glue (Otago Witness 23/10/1875: 3), or waterproof glue (Bruce Herald 8/6/1888: 6) – to its use in leisure projects for the 20th century idle housewife.
These more modern glue ads offered descriptions for an array of craft and knick-knack projects, from instructions for “smartening” one’s umbrella by gluing a bottle cap to it (Evening Post 16/04/1938: 19), and “silencing” one’s chairs and trays by gluing felt to their undersides (New Zealand Herald 1/08/1925: 6). You could even use glue to stiffen the train of your wedding dress, and thus render train bearers unnecessary in your wedding party (Evening Post 2/11/1938: 25). If you’re more even game than those dames, you could build an 8ft canoe out of 35 coat-hangers, a few strips of canvas, bit of oil cloth, two pieces of wood, a box of drawing pins, paper clips, and a bottle of glue (this sounds like MacGyver recipe!) – and it cost less than 30 shillings to make! (Evening Post 11/01/1937: 6).
The same archives inform us that glue was also employed for more criminal enterprises at this time – most amusingly, in a Parisian jewellery heist, featuring a Baroness with literal sticky fingers! She was caught stealing a diamond ring which was stuck with glue to the palm of her hand (Mataura Ensign 1/05/1911: 5 ). Also, you may have heard about the starving citizens of Leningrad having to eat the glue off their wallpaper during the siege of WWII? – Here, an Oldham street vendor uses glue to thicken and strengthen the gravy in his pies! To make matters worse, he stole the glue (Grey River Argus 13/06/1905: 4). When he was caught, he was sentenced to three months hard labour (for stealing the glue, not for feeding glue to his patrons). But like I said, it’s organic, and contains only 5.9 calories per postage stamp!
By Chelsea Dickson
Blanco & Bull 2013. Swift Polish & Blacking Co. [online] Available at: http://www.blancoandbull.com/boot-cleaning/swift-polish-blacking-co/’
Cannon, A., 2010 Australian Adhesives for Paper 1870-1920. 2010 AICCM Book, Paper and Photographic Materials Symposium. [online] Available at: https://aiccm.org.au/sites/default/files/docs/BPG2010/AICCM_B%26P2010_Cannon_p15-21.pdf
Gloy Manufacturing Company, Ltd 1897, Patent, Application for Trade Mark titles Gloy depicting octopus in respect of a semi-fluid substances called ‘gloy’ which is used for adhesive purposes by the “Gloy” Manufacturing Company Limited, National Archives of Australia, series number A11708, control symbol 2001, barcode 4993635.