Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Look Inside the International Tinsel Cartel

Making OPEC and DeBeers look like glee clubs, the tinsel trade maintains a brutal price discipline that would be the envy of the Sinaloa or the Worldwide Parsley Producers cartels.

From Popular Science:

The Innovative Chemistry Of Tinsel
Plus, tinsel experiments you can perform at home

Have you ever wondered what tinsel is made of? Me, neither.

But at one time, it was a big deal. Until 1972, many mass-produced tinsels were made using lead, Chemical & Engineering News reports. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration put a stop to that, for obvious reasons. Yet lead-based tinsel was so beloved, the FDA didn't publicize the change at first.

"The decision was made internally not to publicize it because we feared that many people preferring the lead variety would stockpile it," Malcom Jensen, then the FDA's director of product safety, told the Associated Press in November 1972.

Chemical & Engineering News has a great history of the chemical makeup of tinsel. The site includes details about real gold and silver tinsels, flammable tinsel (that was an unintentional side effect), and tinsel patents. We would have never guessed the cheap, sparkly stuff was once such a focus of chemical innovation. But then we searched our own archives and found many, many references to tinsel, often for home experiments. Some highlights:

September 1892: Attach tinsel to the ends of a tuning fork to visualize the fork's vibrations. This experiment is just one of 120 designed to teach people about the physics of sound.
In the same issue, the magazine published a 14-page story about mica, a silicate material that creates shiny flecks in granite and other rocks. "Considerable amounts" of mined mica go into Christmas cards and tinsel, the magazine reports.

September 1924: "Fine threads of spun glass, as is used for sparkling tinsel on Christmas trees, are being made into wigs for women by a newly discovered process, which may set a new style." There's no further explanation....MORE
From the linked Chemical & Engineering News story:

What Is Tinsel Made Of, And How Has It Changed Over The Years?
From silver to lead to plastic, this Christmas decoration has evolved with the times
South Philadelphia takes tinsel seriously. You won’t find artisanal pine-cone garlands in this neighborhood. The tinsel here is locally sourced from Brite Star Manufacturing Co., a family-owned business that is one of the only remaining U.S. producers of the shiny stuff. Lest you think that decking your halls with tinsel is passé, third-generation Yuletide purveyor Judy Kinderman says her family’s company has been doing brisk business since the Great Recession. “Whenever there’s an economic downturn,” she says, “people turn to less expensive ways to decorate.”...MORE