FROM CASEIN TO GALALITH
Casein is the main protein of milk, especially in coagulated form as in cheese. The name comes from the Latin caseus : Cheese. It is insoluble in water, in fact casein swells in it. It is soluble in alkaline solutions. It burns difficultly, smelling of organic proteins.
Casein was used as a binder of colour pigments in ancient times. In French, the word appears in 1350 in a book entitled “Le Secret des Arts” (The Secret of Crafts).
The quality of casein depends on that of milk, hence on the races of cows and the areas they are bred.
From 1870, casein figures in German and British registered patents for colours imitating horn, marble and porcelain. But the production is very limited.
In 1882, casein is used mostly in making cheese and, more recently, photographic paper. It is found in gums and glues, paints, mastic and cement. Cabinet makers, wood engravers and painters also use casein.
In 1895, two German chemists, Wilhem B. Krische and Adolf Spitteler, imagine to replace the classroom blackboard, made of slate and heavy, by a light white hard surface to write on and erase with a moisten sponge. They discover that casein can be hardened with formol. They patent their invention under the name Lactoform. The new material competes against celluloid, which is flexible and used in the production on many manufactured objects such as combs, toys, shelves, collars…
Being very hard, Lactoform looks like horn, can be polished and made glossy.
Simultaneously, Alfred Trillat, a French self-taught chemist who became a head of department at the Institut Pasteur, discovers that formol makes albuminoid matters insoluble and hard. Albumins are the components of casein. Trillat proposes to produce hard casein on an industrial scale to the Huillard Laboratoires, in Suresnes near Paris. Samples are made in 1893, but the company is not convinced and does not follow suit.
So Krische and Spitteler in Germany are the first to produce hard casein on an industrial scale. A new company, Vereinigte Gummiware Fabriken, is established near Hamburg.
Simultaneously, the Compagnie Française de la Galalithe is created in the North of France.
Galalith (milk stone in Greek) is registered as a patent in 1906. It is the first plastic matter ever created and becomes rapidly the common name for hard casein, such as Diesel fuel for car motors.
Particularly hard with a density of 1.35, Galalith is odourless, non-inflammable, resistant to acids and solvents. Like wood it can be sawed, lathe-worked, drilled, milled, glued, mechanically or hand polished, etc…
It reacts to water, especially to the degree of humidity. Its production needs long drying times : Thirteen days for a sheet with a thickness of four millimetres (mm), two months for a 8 mm one, three months for a 10 mm one, twenty days for a ring of a 8 mm diameter, two months and a half for a 22 mm one.
It can be widely coloured at the first stage of production, imitating ivory, marble, scales, ebony, horn, etc... Particularly valued by button-makers in Meru and the Jura, it is also used for making combs, jewellery (in Oyonnax, Morez, Saint-Claude, Ivry-la-Bataille, the region of Ariege), knife handles in Thiers, knitting needles (Allier) and electrical insulators.
In 1905, the newly created International Galalith Gesellschaft Hoff buys the rights of the Compagnie Française de la Galalithe, gone bankrupt, giving it a de facto monopoly over Galalith in Europe.
In 1914, hundreds of tons of Galalith are produced in France and Germany, employing more than 3,000 workers. But the First World War (1914-18) upsets everything. The German production depends on casein imported from France, now embargoed. The assets of International Galalith Gesellschaft Hoff in France are frozen, to the benefit of the French producers.
The production of celluloid, the main competitor of Galalith, is restricted. It is highly inflammable and also used in making nitrocellulose, an explosive. Galalith now has a free way.
In the 1920’s in France, Galalith often comes from milk producing areas. But the Great Depression of the Thirties kills many small companies. At the outbreak of the Second World War, only eight remain : Etablissements Feuillant, Etablissements Simon-Lahu, Petitcollin, Société Charentaine de Matières Plastiques, Etablissements Desrues, Société Erinoïd, Lactilithe, and La Claudilithe.
In 1940, these companies are producing about 2,700 tons a year, of which 700 tons by the Etablissements Feuillant, leader of the market. Production stops during the war. It resumes only in 1947 at half the level of that of 1940. Some 600 to 800 workers produce the raw material and 7,000 to 10,000 manufacture it. Feuillant churns out 550 tons annually.
In the 1970’s production of Galalith declines. A new competitor has been invented : polyester resins. Though lustreless compared to Galalith, they are cheaper and manufactured as easily. Feuillant’s production falls to 410 tons in 1974. The Etablissements Simon-Lahu still furnishes button-makers. Also, producing milk is now much more profitable than skimming it to obtain casein.
The closure of the Etablissements Feuillant in 1981 marks the end of Galalith. It can still be found in rare remaining stocks.