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Cellulose was discovered in 1838 by the French chemist Anselme Payen, who isolated it from plant matter and determined its chemical formula.Cellulose was used to produce the first successful thermoplastic polymer, celluloid, by Hyatt Manufacturing Company in 1870. Production of rayon ("artificial silk") from cellulose began in the 1890s and cellophane was invented in 1912. Hermann Staudinger determined the polymer structure of cellulose in 1920. The compound was first chemically synthesized (without the use of any biologically derived enzymes) in 1992, by Kobayashi and Shoda.

Cellulose has no taste, is odorless, is hydrophilic with the contact angle of 20–30 degrees,is insoluble in water and most organic solvents, is chiral and is biodegradable. It was shown to melt at 467 °C in 2016.It can be broken down chemically into its glucose units by treating it with concentrated mineral acids at high temperature.Cellulose is derived from D-glucose units, which condense through β(1→4)-glycosidic bonds. This linkage motif contrasts with that for α(1→4)-glycosidic bonds present in starch and glycogen. Cellulose is a straight chain polymer: unlike starch, no coiling or branching occurs, and the molecule adopts an extended and rather stiff rod-like conformation, aided by the equatorial conformation of the glucose residues. The multiple hydroxyl groups on the glucose from one chain form hydrogen bonds with oxygen atoms on the same or on a neighbor chain, holding the chains firmly together side-by-side and forming microfibrils with high tensile strength. This confers tensile strength in cell walls, where cellulose microfibrils are meshed into a polysaccharide matrix.