Early microscopists made detailed observations of the phenomenon of plasmolysis, many of which have passed into the historical record without comment. This review considers the significance of these observations in the light of recent cell-biological studies which are addressing the complex relationships between the plasma membrane (PM) and the extracellular matrix, as well as the interrelationships of the PM, endomembrane system and cytoskeleton. Emphasis is placed on the relative roles of Hechtian strand formation and PM vesiculation as mechanisms allowing the conservation of PM during a plasmolysis/deplasmolysis cycle. The behaviour of plasmodesmata during plasmolysis is considered in relation to the ability of cells to resume intercellular transport following deplasmolysis. Finally, the behaviour of cells during freeze-induced ptesmolysis is addressed.