Back in the 1950s, the plastics industry was thriving. The post war economic boom was realized, especially in the United States because the US did not have to rebuild infrastructure devastated by the ravages of war. Plastics became popular as they were cheap and versatile. They carried with them a perception of modernism bent towards a refrain of a wondrous future. We now know the devastating problems that plastics cause and hope to work for a brighter, renewable future.
Empire of Carolina was a plastics company based in Tarboro, North Carolina. During the plastics craze of the fifties, they began production of blow mold outdoor nativity figures that would eventually become enshrined in the traditions and memories of thousands of Americans. These nativity items featured the Holy Family, three Wisemen, a shepherd, sheep, ox, donkey, and camel figures. Each individual figure featured its own light socket and cord. Friends and neighbors could now plug in their nativity scene and have it pass on the true message of Christmas all day and all night.
Very few people have driven the streets of their community and not encountered these joyous displays brightening the lawns or church steps of those who owned a lighted nativity set. Christmas is, perhaps like no other, a season of tradition, of rhythm, of memory. Many of us perform the rituals with a happy heart and unbridled enthusiasm. Part of those rituals is the opening of attics, basements, and garages nationwide, to wipe the dust off our treasured cartons. To open each box is to reveal again for ourselves and our children, the symbols of the message, the message that He is born.
Empire of Carolina was bought out in 2000 by General Foam Plastics, Inc. Despite the change of ownership, the production of blow mold figures as well as the iconic blue plastic children’s swimming pools remained in North Carolina. They continued the manufacture of these items until 2017, at which point, slumping sales, decline in the integrity of the molds, increasing demand for shelf space in retail stores, and perhaps an ineptitude of management led to the dissolution of General Foam Plastics, Inc. The sale of the treasured molds for scrap metal spelled the end of an era.
The silver lining of this tale is that there has risen a very welcome variety of much higher quality, much more greatly detailed selections of outdoor nativity scenes. Demand has never been greater for these displays and the future looks bright as we continue to create new traditions to share with our loved ones and our communities.