Cellophane, a technological marvel half a century ago when it revolutionized packaging, is dissapearing, the victim of newer marvels and higher energy costs.
And as the product - which helped keep bread, meat, cigarettes and Cole Porter's lyrics fresh - becomes invisible as well as transparent, the factories that make it are dying off.
In Old Hickory, Tenn., Buffalo, N.Y., Marcus Hook Pa.; and Richmond - and starting later this week in Fredericksburg, Va., the football field-length rollers have stopped whirling out nearly endless ribbons of wrapping.
But millions of Americans who have grown up calling any thin, clear wrapping material "cellophane" may never notice the change. Cheaper, petroleum based products look like and do the same thing as their older, wood-based rival. A cigarette wrapper still crinkles in the hand, but it is likely to be "oriented polypropylene," not cellophane.
Here in this historic town on the fall of the Rappahannock River, the first of 1,100 employes will be laid off Friday and the staged production shutdown will be completed by the end of March.
The closing of the plant owned by the giant FMC Corp., was described by Charles Wingard, 54-year-old maintenance foreman with 33 years at the plant, as "just like a death in the family. It won't hit us for a couple of weeks. I suspected it was coming but I didn't really expect it.
For the Fredericksburg area, the loss of its largest employer will be "a hard blow, but not a knockout punch," said Arthur A. Olson, director of economic development for the Rappahannock Area Development Commission.
"I would estimate that by the end of 1978 we would have equalled the number of jobs that were lost," said Olson, whose job is to recruit industry for the area. General Motors will soon open a plant with 500 jobs and several other industries are close to deciding on locating here, he said.
There is also the possibility of a new industry moving onto the FMC site described by Olson as "the most attractive location in the entire Southeast United States." Several major corporations already have looked at the facility, which has its own water, sewer and power plants, rail line and barge dock, he said.
"Cellophane" was named by a Swiss chemist, Jacques Edwin Brandenberger who designed the first machine which could produce a thin transparent film from wood fiber.
The E.I. duPont de Nemours and Co. obtained the U.S. rights to the process and opened the first plant here in 1924. There were no machines capable of mass wrapping the new product around consumer goods, so it was at first limited to use on luxury goods.
Porter noted that touch of class in song:
"You're the top!
You're Napoleon brandy.
You're the purple light of a summer night in Spain:
You're the National Gallery.
You're Garbo's salary,
You're cellophane . . ."
Wrappings machines and improvements in the product rapidly expanded uses until The Washington Post, stretching the point a bit, could write in a 1941 story of "the 'Cellophane Age', pinnacle of man's ultimate achievement . . ."
But by the time production peaked at 440 million tons in 1960, plastic films - made from petroleum instead of wood pulp - had come on the market.
One plastic film, called PVC, took over the wrapper market for fresh meat dropping that cellophane use from 60 million pounds per year in 1970 to 6 million in 1977. Polyethylene took bread and cake, and bakery use of cellophane fell from 120 million pounds to 52 million pounds in that same period.
The latest plastic, oriented polypropylene or OPP, took over the wrapping function in the tobacco industry and worst of all for the cellophane industry, can do anything cellophane can do.
While demand for cellophane was dropping by 28 per cent between 1974 and 1977, its price was going up by 70 per cent due to rising energy costs. And the cost of OPP, already 30 to 40 percent cheaper, rises only half as fast as cellophane with crude oil increases, because cellophane production uses more oil.
The only protection for cellophane is a lack of production capacity for OPP, according to FMC officials. Another OPP plant will start operating this year, cutting out demand for another 75 million pounds of cellophane and may force the closure of one of the four remaining U.S. cellophane plants, they say.
Zachariah C. Dameron Jr., the plant manager at Fredericksburg, said, "We made exhaustive attempts to reduce the production cost of cellophane by upgrading the plant and were partially successful."
But demand slid more rapidly than expected. Fourth quarter losses were at an annual rate of $7 million and 1978 was going to be worse, he said.
The decision to close came after "long, serious and agonizing deliberation," Dameron said.
"The circumstances were entirely beyond our control here. The closing of this plant is in no way a reflection on the people working in it." said Dameron, a native Virginian and graduate of Virginia Military Institute. He, too, described the end as "like a death in the family"
The plant, which opened in 1930 as the Sylvania Industrial Corp., is credited by older townspeople with saving the Fredericksburg region's economy in the Great Depression.
According to Lemuel W. Houston, city postmaster for 26 years and now president of the Chamber of Commerce, "We never had a depression here. The plant expanded as other places closed."
The plant quickly became the larest employer here and remains so today - and for a few more days. By 1960, it was employing about 3,400 people. Cellophane - and tourism at the nearby Civil War battlefields - were the big industries here.
It was a stable work force, making a good wage for the employes who generally were happy with their treatment and benefits. There has never been a strike at the plant.
Workers grew old in the plant and retired. The employes' average age is 48 and the average length of service is 21 years.
Fortunately for Fredericksburg, as cellophane production declined and the work force gradually was cut back to 1,200, the region's economy became more diversified. It is now the fastest growing area in the state, creating both an economic and psychological cushion to the blow of the closing.
The shutdown announcement on Feb. 13 was a shock but not a surprise. There is none of the bitterness that would surround a plant moving out to avoid unions or forced out by cheaper foreign competition. The plant died, but there is only history to blame.
"I feel like we'll have a 12- to 18-month dip, but the economy of Fredericksburg is sound and will remain sound," said Stuart H. Payne Sr., president of the National Bank of Fredericksburg.
"The hardship here will be individual," he said.
The individuals include men like John Treblic, a 60-year old pipe insulator with more than 30 years at the plant. Treblic and his two brothers have a combined total of 100 years' service.
"I'm hoping I can get a job somewhere. I've got several offers but they are at lower pay. I'm sick about this but you have to take the bitter with the sweet. It's been a good place to work - you don't appreciate it until you lose it," Treblic said.
Treblic will get the maximum severance pay of $5,000 and like about 300 of the employes will be eligible for retirement. He can also draw unemployment.
The Virginia Employment Commission is beefing up its staff here to handle unemployment and the job search and FMC is bringing in each employe for an interview to explain benefits and see if men can be placed in jobs at any of the corporation's 135 other manufacturing plants.
Most of the older men at the plant have said they want to stay in the Fredericksburg area; younger men like Glen Apperson, a 25-year-old instrument mechanic are willing to move. "I've been here all my life, but I am going to try to stay with FMC." Apperson said, "I think the company is doing the best they can for us."
"We believe we have done everything humanly possible," said Dameron. "Our workers' support is one of the great things I have seen.
"They are continuing to work hard and our quality has remained high," he said. "They are just good people."