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Chemical belt buckles and a century of hard hats

by Alexander H. Tullo
January 26, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 4


Chemical bling

A photo of an array of chemical industry belt buckles.
Credit: Alex Tullo/C&EN
Hardware: The author's chemical belt-buckle collection.

Recently, the Newscripts gang has been collecting belt buckles. It all started at a western-attire store on US Route 30 near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, with the purchase of a leather belt that allows you to swap out the buckle.

Belt buckles are like neckties for your pants. You want to change them, not wear the same one all the time. All manner of companies make belt buckles­—John Deere, Peterbilt, Ford—but this is a chemistry magazine, which raises the question: Do chemical company belt buckles exist?

A search on eBay reveals that indeed they do. The first addition to the collection was a buckle from ICI Explosives, a company that isn’t around anymore. Australia’s Orica runs what’s left of ICI Explosives today. The buckle cost about $10, and while it is prized, it’s safely packed away for airline travel.

Next came a BASF belt buckle. It seems fitting that the largest chemical company in the world anchors the emerging collection. Although the buckle features simply the German giant’s all-caps logo and cost less than $10, it impressed many C&EN colleagues at last year’s staff meeting.

So why do chemical belt buckles exist? The Newscripts gang’s best guess is that companies used to have them made to distribute to workers, perhaps around the holidays or at company picnics. Some may be part of plant workers’ uniforms.

Think of any chemical company, current or no longer existing, and it has probably had buckles—DuPont, Dow, Mobil Chemical, Rohm and Haas, Quantum Chemical, you name it. There is even one for a Unocal nitrogen fertilizer plant in Kenai, Alaska. The plant was built in 1969 to convert local natural gas into a product that could be exported. Agrium acquired it in 2000 and shut it down in 2007 when local gas supplies dwindled.

Some buckles are clearly commemorative, made on the occasion of ethylene project completions and so forth. The gang’s most recent belt-buckle purchase is from the 1984 start-up of Union Carbide’s polysilicon plant in Moses Lake, Washington. REC Silicon owns the site today. The company shut down the facility last year because of Chinese tariffs on solar-grade polysilicon. The good news is that REC may decide to restart operating the plant. Maybe it’s time to fire up the belt-buckle foundry again?


A photo of workers wearing hard hats while constructing the Golden Gate Bridge.
Credit: Bullard
Hard wear: Golden Gate Bridge workers wore Bullard helmets.

100 years of hard hats

It so happens that 2019 wasn’t just the International Year of the Periodic Table. It was also the 100-year anniversary of the hard hat.

The company Bullard, founded in San Francisco, had long been an outfitter of equipment, such as lamps, for miners in California and Nevada. In 1919, inspired by the doughboy army helmets used in the Great War, the company developed the “Hard Boiled” hat. It was made from steamed canvas, leather, and glue and was painted black. Bullard’s hats were donned on the construction site of the Golden Gate Bridge, the world’s first designated hard-hat area.

Hard hats evolved over the intervening decades. In 1938, the company introduced an aluminum model. In the ’40s, that design was phased out because it conducted electricity, so the company started making fiberglass hats that didn’t have that problem.

In the ’50s and ’60s, thermoplastics started replacing the fiberglass models. The hat that we know today, made of polyethylene and incorporating a ratchet system in the back to adjust the fit of the hat’s suspension system, was rolled out in 1982. The company, in the meantime, moved to Kentucky.

Wells Bullard, the current CEO of Bullard and the great-granddaughter of the hard hat’s inventor, is proud of her company’s legacy of helping workers “go home safely at the end of the day.” Indeed, the hats must have saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives over the years.

Alex Tullo wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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