PVC was accidentally synthesized in 1872 by German chemist Eugen Baumann. The polymer appeared as a white solid inside a flask of vinyl chloride that had been left exposed to sunlight. In the early 20th century the Russian chemist Ivan Ostromislensky and Fritz Klatte of the German chemical company Griesheim-Elektron both attempted to use PVC in commercial products, but difficulties in processing the rigid, sometimes brittle polymer thwarted their efforts. Waldo Semon and the B.F. Goodrich Company developed a method in 1926 to plasticize PVC by blending it with various additives. The result was a more flexible and more easily processed material that soon achieved widespread commercial use.

The polymerisation of vinyl chloride About 80% of production involves suspension polymerization. Emulsion polymerization accounts for about 12% and bulk polymerization accounts for 8%. Suspension polymerizations affords particles with average diameters of 100–180 μm, whereas emulsion polymerization gives much smaller particles of average size around 0.2 μm. VCM and water are introduced into the reactor and a polymerization initiator, along with other additives. The reaction vessel is pressure tight to contain the VCM. The contents of the reaction vessel are continually mixed to maintain the suspension and ensure a uniform particle size of the PVC resin. The reaction is exothermic, and thus requires cooling. As the volume is reduced during the reaction (PVC is denser than VCM), water is continually added to the mixture to maintain the suspension.

The polymerization of VCM is started by compounds called initiators that are mixed into the droplets. These compounds break down to start the radical chain reaction. Typical initiators include dioctanoyl peroxide and dicetyl peroxydicarbonate, both of which have fragile O-O bonds. Some initiators start the reaction rapidly but decay quickly and other initiators have the opposite effect. A combination of two different initiators is often used to give a uniform rate of polymerization. After the polymer has grown by about 10x, the short polymer precipitates inside the droplet of VCM, and polymerization continues with the precipitated, solvent-swollen particles. The weight average molecular weights of commercial polymers range from 100,000 to 200,000 and the number average molecular weights range from 45,000 to 64,000.

Once the reaction has run its course, the resulting PVC slurry is degassed and stripped to remove excess VCM, which is recycled. The polymer is then passed through a centrifuge to remove water. The slurry is further dried in a hot air bed, and the resulting powder sieved before storage or pelletization. Normally, the resulting PVC has a VCM content of less than 1 part per million. Other production processes, such as micro-suspension polymerization and emulsion polymerization, produce PVC with smaller particle sizes (10 μm vs. 120–150 μm for suspension PVC) with slightly different properties and with somewhat different sets of applications.