Rubber has been used to make tires since cars hit the streets. Pictured in 1940, a technician shows how an inner tube reinforces safety in tires. Tires today are made from a combination of natural rubber, synthetic rubber, and other materials like steel.
Rubber has been used to make tires since cars hit the streets. Pictured in 1940, a technician shows how an inner tube reinforces safety in tires. Tires today are made from a combination of natural rubber, synthetic rubber, and other materials like steel.
Photograph by Willard Culver, Nat Geo Image Collection

Before plastic, rubber filled American homes

Rubber is still ubiquitous. But in its heyday, it was being molded into everything from gloves to toys.

Before our lives were inundated with things made of plastic, rubber was America's go-to manufacturing material. The 1940s saw a boom in rubber production before cheaper, versatile plastic replaced it in the next decade. Like plastic, synthetic rubber is bad for the environment. The production process releases soot into the atmosphere, and the U.S. alone discards millions of tires each year. But also like plastic, rubber used to be mass-produced with a fervor.

A 1940 National Geographic article written by J.R. Hildebrand on the then-burgeoning rubber industry notes that B. F. Goodrich, now a tire manufacturer, once led the way in all things rubber, making tens of thousands of products.

It's not easy to convey the breadth of products that were once made from rubber. In one factory, Hildebrand found Halloween decorations, coffin headrests, toys, beach balls, catheters, and of course, rubber bands. Rubber 70 years ago was mixed with the white latex sap commonly pulled from Amazonian sharinga trees. Today, about 60 percent of the world's rubber is synthetic, made from treated petroleum, and the other 40 percent is still sourced from sharinga trees now farmed around the world.

Click through the gallery above to see what life was like when rubber reigned.

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