The History of Guitar Picks

There are paintings of stringed instruments w/ some sort of pick
on the walls of the pyramids.

These picks were 'new', in the scope of things, according to some theorists.
Imagine our early ancestors plucking their bowstring after a successful hunt.
How long before someone used a stone, or dull arrowhead, as a pick?

From the middle ages, up until around 1800,
feather quills were very popular for strumming various predecessors to the mandolin.

By the end of that century, tortoise shell picks had become the most popular.
Even before the Hawksbill turtle became protected,
the high cost and difficulty of obtaining, heating and flattening the shell
had people trying many other materials.

Celluloid was the material that dominated the manufacture of picks after that.
Today, only 2 things are produced from celluloid in quantity
Ping pong balls and guitar picks.
(Ed. note: Hey! They don't mention finishes on many guitars!)

Celluloid was discovered when the largest manufacturers of billiard balls
offered a $10,000 reward for an acceptable substitute for another substance that was becoming rare...

In 1870, John Wesley Hyatt stumbled upon the formula for Nitrocellulose.
Celluloid is a combustible material and the first billiard balls would sometimes explode when striking each other.
Nitrocellulose is very similar to the civil war era explosive, guncotton.
After the failure with billiard balls, Hyatt tried unsuccessfully to use the material to make teeth.

Eventually, it was realized that the material was perfect for mimicking many
of the trinkets that were normally made of more expensive materials,
such as knobs, toys, compact cases, combs, brushes, etc.

A very important man in the history of picks was Luigi D'Andrea.
Mr. D'Andrea emigrated to the U.S. in 1902, at age 17. He was a laborer and in 1920,
he became fascinated with some celluloid women's compacts that he saw.
He bought some, along with a mallet and 'dies', for stamping out decorations for the compacts.

In another of history's fortunate failures,
Luigi became disillusioned with the idea of marketing these makeup accessories.
As he sat contemplating his decorations, his son blurted;
"They look like Cousin Prima's mandolin picks, Papa."

Struck by inspiration, Luigi grabbed up a box of these 1" celluloid decorations,
which happened to be in the shape of hearts..
and went to a music firm who bought them for $10.

The 20's went on to herald the Golden Age of Picks.
There was a vast assortment of materials, shapes and 'gripping devices' for guitar picks.

Prior to the 1920's, mandolins were far more popular than guitars, in America.
After World War I, the banjo became as popular as the mandolin.
At this time, guitars were predominantly gut-string instruments
that were played with the fingers and considered 'background' instruments.

If guitarists used picks at all, they used finger and thumb style picks.
Flat picks were only popular for the banjo and mandolin.

In the early 1920's, Nick Lucas (born Nicolas Lucanese in 1897)
recorded the first guitar solos on wax cylinders.

Lucas went on to star in one of the first Technicolor 'talkies'...
1929's 'Gold Diggers on Broadway'.
One scene had beautiful maidens scampering through a field of flowers
while he used a flat pick to play 'Tiptoe Through the Tulips'.

America was captivated and the guitar began it's climb to fame.

source: Picks! by Will Hoover