Brandenberger Invents Cellophane

Jacques Edwin Brandenberger’s successful casting of viscose cellulose from solution into thin, continuous, transparent sheets started the modern packaging era.

Summary of Event

The invention of cellophane, although it represented a tremendous amount of perseverance and insight on the part of Jacques Edwin Brandenberger, was not a major theoretical achievement. Instead, it was the result of a mere modification of an existing process, one of several processes for making cellulose plastics. Cellulose plastics
Plastics;cellulose Nor was the amount of cellophane, on a weight basis, particularly significant relative to other materials made from wood; at its peak, the production of cellophane was only 0.5 percent of the production of paper and less than 20 percent of the production of all cellulosic plastic materials. Cellophane did, however, revolutionize the packaging industry Packaging industry as the first clear plastic film. Cellophane
[kw]Brandenberger Invents Cellophane (1904-1912)
[kw]Invents Cellophane, Brandenberger (1904-1912)
[kw]Cellophane, Brandenberger Invents (1904-1912)
[g]France;1904-1912: Brandenberger Invents Cellophane[00980]
[c]Science and technology;1904-1912: Brandenberger Invents Cellophane[00980]
[c]Chemistry;1904-1912: Brandenberger Invents Cellophane[00980]
[c]Inventions;1904-1912: Brandenberger Invents Cellophane[00980]
Brandenberger, Jacques Edwin
Cross, Charles Frederick
Bevan, Edward John

The first successful cellulose plastic—indeed, the first synthetic plastic ever made—was created in 1846 by Christian Friedrich Schönbein of Switzerland when he formed nitrocellulose (also called cellulose nitrate, depending on its use) through the action of sulfuric and nitric acids on cotton. Nitrocellulose Nitrocellulose soon became very important and had a variety of applications. It was used as a propellant and an explosive by the Austrian army in 1852 (called guncotton or smokeless powder, the first plastic explosive), as the first modern lacquer in the United States in 1882 using amyl acetate as a solvent, in early photographic films (termed celluloid, as is cellulose acetate, which later replaced cellulose nitrate Cellulose nitrate for this use), and in textiles as the first artificial silk by Count de Chardonnet in 1884 in France.

Because its chemical composition includes a nitrate group (the same molecule group that supplies the oxygen in gunpowder), cellulose nitrate is highly flammable and is no longer used in textiles. Its unsuitability for use in textiles became apparent when the dress of a woman attending a cocktail party disappeared in a flash of smoke when ashes from her escort’s cigar ignited it. Shortly thereafter, in 1869, cellulose acetate was first made in France. The technical difficulties associated with using this material were finally overcome, and by 1908, the Celluloid Company was producing acetate film for use around the world for photography. In 1914, the Lustron Company was set up by the Arthur D. Little Company to start manufacturing cellulose acetate textile fibers, which are called acetate rayon, or rayon Rayon for short. Cellulose nitrate was quickly replaced by cellulose acetate and other materials for all uses except explosives and propellants.

In 1892, English chemists Charles Frederick Cross and Edward John Bevan developed the viscose rayon process. Except for a modification in the method of casting the solution into usable form, that process is the basis for cellophane manufacture. Cellulose from pulped wood fibers (very similar to cotton fibers, except the cellulose chains are about one-tenth the length) is treated with sodium hydroxide solution (also called caustic soda) to swell the fibers in a process called mercerization. The Englishman John Mercer invented mercerization in 1844 as a method to shrink cotton and make it glossy. The mercerized, shredded pulp is aged for several days and then treated with carbon disulfide, which reacts with cellulose to form the viscous, orange-colored cellulose xanthate solution known as viscose. The viscose is aged for several days, filtered, and then forced through a thin hole into an acid bath containing salts that convert the cellulose xanthate back into cellulose. The regenerated cellulose is no longer soluble and forms a solid filament known as viscose rayon. Cross and Bevan used this process as a means of forming continuous carbon filaments for use in the newly invented lightbulb.

In 1904, Brandenberger, reportedly frustrated by the sloppy tabletops in a local French café, desired to develop a protective material to prevent tablecloths from becoming stained. His employer, the Thaon Textile Company, encouraged him over the eight years it took him to develop cellophane. At first, Brandenberger used cellulose nitrate solutions, but these gave a film that was much too brittle and rigid to be useful for tablecloths. Later, he worked with the new viscose material that had been perfected by Cross and Bevan. He found that he was able to peel a transparent film from a treated tablecloth. Although viscose was not suitable for use in tablecloths, despite numerous attempts, Brandenberger pursued the idea of casting viscose into thin films from solution.

Brandenberger filed a patent in 1908 on regenerated cellulose films from viscose using a water bath containing ammonium sulfate to coagulate the viscose and an acidic water bath to regenerate the cellulose. The final bath usually contains glycerol, which acts as a plasticizer; that is, it makes the cellophane much less brittle. The only significant difference from the viscose rayon process is that in the cellophane process, the viscose solution is cast through long, thin slots rather than small holes. It is much more difficult to handle the thin sheet compared with handling the filament; this is where most of the development took place. Casting it into a ring-shaped slot results in a continuous tube, which is used in sausage casings.

Until 1912, Brandenberger worked to perfect a machine that would produce a continuous film of cellophane. He filed for additional patents to protect his invention and tried to find uses for cellophane. During World War I, cellophane was used to make unbreakable eyepieces in gas masks. After the war, it was used as trimming for hats. With the backing of France’s largest rayon company, Brandenberger started the company La Cellophane, which literally translates as “the clear cellulose.” In 1920, the Du Pont Corporation, Du Pont Corporation[Dupont Corporation];cellophane recognizing an important material, bought the North American rights to cellophane. On April 4, 1924, the first cellophane was manufactured in the United States at the Du Pont plant in Buffalo, New York.

The original cellophane, although waterproof, was not water-vapor-proof. Bread and other moist materials wrapped in cellophane would dry out over time, and dry items would pick up moisture and become soggy. Much research and development went into solving this problem; in 1927, after trying hundreds of compounds, William Hale Charch Charch, William Hale of Du Pont found that a very thin wax coating could prevent the cellophane from “breathing.” Also, the original cellophane was not heat-sealable, which meant that packaging had to be done by hand, so cellophane was used to wrap only expensive items, such as bottles of perfume. This problem was overcome with a coating that allowed cellophane to stick to itself with the application of heat and pressure by automated packaging machines. Ironically, this coating contained cellulose nitrate, the same material replaced by these new cellulose materials.


At first, cellophane was very expensive, about thirteen dollars per pound. Many vendors were said to store their stocks of the material in safes. As the process of making cellophane improved dramatically within the first year, however, prices dropped to about four and a half dollars per pound. Cellophane became popular very quickly. As the first wrapping material that was truly clear and allowed the contents of a package to be plainly visible, it soon replaced the waxed paper and glassine paper that had served as wrappings.

The advantages of cellophane became an extremely important marketing tool that created the modern packaging industry. Soon, cellophane received expansive publicity, and people began wrapping everything in cellophane. Sales of ready-made food items such as baked goods and dried pastas increased by as much as tenfold as people could now easily see the products in their packages. Even through the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II, the production of cellophane continued to increase.

Another product created with cellophane was clear tape used to mend paper and to attach items to each other. Although other materials are now used to make this kind of adhesive tape (often called Scotch tape, after the name of the most successful brand), it is still sometimes referred to as cellophane tape. Cellophane also was adapted for use in semipermeable membranes (membranes that allow small molecules to pass but block large molecules) for applications such as kidney dialysis. Cellophane is also used as a release agent in the manufacture of fiberglass and certain rubber products.

As cellophane became popular, production increased quickly in the United States. By 1940, about 110.2 million pounds (50 million kilograms) were manufactured per year, and by 1960, its peak year of production, 440.9 million pounds (200 million kilograms) were made annually. By the 1960’s, cellophane’s competition from polyethylene, thermoplastic resins such as saran, and other materials derived from petroleum was intense, and this initiated a decline in production.

Other materials replaced cellophane for many uses because they had improved properties and were cheaper to manufacture, but these materials only filled the niche that cellophane defined. None of these replacement films created the same excitement in the marketplace that cellophane did when it first appeared. As the original transparent film, cellophane created the modern packaging industry. Cellophane

Further Reading

  • Battista, O. A. “Transparent Bonanza.” Science Digest 27 (April, 1950): 84-87. This brief, interesting article chronicles how Brandenberger invented cellophane, the early days of cellophane, and cellophane’s impact on packaging and marketing.
  • “Cellophane: A Substitute for Paper.” Literary Digest 80 (February 2, 1924): 61-62. This article, written early in the first year that cellophane was produced in the United States, describes cellophane’s importance as a packaging material and as the basis for a new industry.
  • “Competition Slows Cellophane’s Growth.” Chemical and Engineering News 39 (March 6, 1961): 32-33. This article, written at the peak of cellophane’s success, discusses the importance of polyethylene as the most inexpensive clear film and also mentions other materials that eventually captured more and more of the packaging film industry.
  • Haynes, William. Cellulose: The Chemical That Grows. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1953. This is a fascinating, well-written account of the cellulose industry from the early 1800’s through the early 1950’s. Describes the important discoveries and how they were related.
  • Peck, A. P. “Cellophane Is Born.” Scientific American 158 (May, 1938): 274-275. A two-page spread with nine pictures showing the process of making cellophane with captions describing the process. The best available pictorial on the process.
  • Turbak, Albin. “Rayon.” In Encyclopedia of Polymer Science and Engineering, edited by Herman F. Mark. 2d ed. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1985-1986. This is a fairly technical, in-depth discussion of viscose rayon and acetate rayon. Includes production and use figures for U.S. and worldwide production.

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