Articles At A Glance
Bakelite: The Beautiful Plastic
By: Ann Brandt
As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, January 2007
Bakelite offers collectors a wide variety of opportunities. Since its invention in 1907, this sturdy plastic has been used in the production of kitchen appliances, serving pieces, dinnerware and flatware, buttons, jewelry, radios, telephones, and other items.
What has been called the material of a thousand uses, Bakelite (pronounced Bay Ka Lite) reached its height of popularity and versatility in Europe and the United States from the 1920s to the early 1940s. Bakelite is heat-resistant, shatterproof and impervious to damage from dryness or humidity. Because of these qualities Bakelite was used during World War II for bomb casings and other weaponry as well as a substitute for steel in some war machinery.
After the war, British automobile manufacturer Joseph Lucas incorporated Bakelite in automobile production. The British Morris 8 had an all-Bakelite dashboard with simulated wood effect. American car manufacturers developed a more imaginative offering of color effects and surface textures. Bakelite is still used in many automotive components
The name Bakelite is a registered trademark of the Union Carbide Corporation. The production method for manufacturing this unique plastic was devised by Belgian chemist Leo Beakeland in 1909. By the 1930s Bakelite was appearing in many products previously manufactured with the less durable and highly flammable celluloid.
The key ingredient in Bakelite is phenol-formaldehyde resin, sometimes referred to as Phenolic. When Baekeland developed the liquid resin that would come to be known as Bakelite, he was trying to create a new type of shellac. He fashioned a device that enabled him to vary heat and pressure of the chemical mixture he was working with.
Using his "Bakelizer" he found that this new substance could take the shape of whatever container it was hardened in. Once set, the material would not melt or change shape. This quality gave it an advantage over any previous plastic.
Today Bakelite products are found mainly in the U.S. and in England, present in both vintage and contemporary items. In America, Bakelite achieved its height of popularity in the 1920s through the 1940s. We see vintage Bakelite items in many items; radio cases, jewelry, and buttons are three examples.
Radios were becoming America's latest toy throughout the 1920s and manufacturers were searching for ways to make them affordable for the general public. By the early 1930s radios were becoming an integral part of American households, and manufacturers found that substituting Bakelite for wood cases kept down costs while offering an attractive product.
During the late 1930s and the early 1 940s, radios made with Bakelite cases became popular and exist today as desirable collectibles. These radios, made by companies such as RCA, Motorola, Coronado, and EKCO, were small and lightweight. Radios from the prewar era can fetch prices ranging from one hundred to over one thousand dollars, depending on the brand and condition.
You can spot a radio case made with Bakelite by its rounded Art Deco look and by the classic butterscotch, dark brown, black or red color in many pieces. Colors began to supplement the black and brown colors used initially in Bakelite products. After the original five colors---yellow, brown, butterscotch, green, and red-fifteen more were added when the Catalin Corporation acquired the Bakelite patent in 1927. The now- famous marbleized effect was also used throughout the years. Novelty radios made with the new colors became popular through the early 1950s.
Another product commonly made with Bakelite was jewelry. During the "Roaring Twenties" many women loved to dress up with clunky and colorful pieces. The phenolic resins used for jewelry were cast as rods, tubes, and slabs which were then sliced into individual pieces. Bakelite's durability allowed the pieces to be shaped without seams and carved according to the wishes of the designers. The Art Deco trend was in full swing at that time and exotic floral and geomet~ patterns evolved and flourished. Bigger was better for many women purchasing Bakelite jewelry. It was not unusual to wear multiple bracelets, often on both arms. Sometimes, metal, glass, and wood were incorporated into the design.
Later, during the Depression many wealthy people had lost their fortunes but not their desire to wear jewelry. People could purchase colorful, carved bracelets and necklaces set with rhinestones at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, Sears, and F. W . Woolworth. Bracelets, pins, and earrings made with "fruit buttons" added whimsy to the 1930s offerings of costume jewelry-so called because the jewelry accented the costume. Bakelite jewelry has been referred to as "dime store jewelry of the 30's and 40's.
Themes in jewelry became popular also during the time of vintage Bakelite jewelry. In addition to fruit pieces there was cruise jewelry (palm trees, sea shells and the like) and sports jewelry with pieces representing footballs, baseballs, and basketballs. Charm bracelets displaying miniature books, pencils, and slates appeared and the variety never seemed to end as designers created jewelry in seemingly endless supply. An attractive piece in good condition may be priced at $100 or more.
Bakelite went into the production of buttons to fulfill the desires of Bakelite jewelry fans. Designer Elsa Schiaparelli would often contract with Bakelite for exclusive buttons t use in her dress designs. In the 1930s buttons appeared on shoulders, sleeves, and cuffs. The designs ranged from the whimsical to the dramatic. Many people may have Bakelite buttons mixed into their supply of ordinary buttons. Bakelite buttons are not always easy to identify. A dainty white button in the shape of a small flower can be a Bakelite button. A large black-rimmed button with a brown marbleized center could be a Bakelite piece as well; such is the variety of designs made with this powerful plastic.
Spotting true Bakelite is tricky as much of it is mixed in with products made from other materials. Unless the seller specifies that an item is Bakelite, a collector may not choose to purchase. There are a couple of ways to discern true Bakelite; the easiest is to rub the piece between your fingers until it feels warm. You should be able to detect a faint scent of formaldehyde or carbolic acid. If the piece does not contain rhinestones, you can immerse it in hot water to check the smell. Or you can dip a Q- Tip into "Scrubbing Bubbles" bathroom cleaner and touch it to the plastic surface. If the Q- Tip turns yellow, the piece is Bakelite. Hitting two pieces of Bakelite together produces a clunky sound not evidenced in regular plastic. Sticking a red hot needle into an inconspicuous place on the item is another way to sniff test for authenticity. But, the literature cautions, thermoplastics will melt and celluloid is extremely flammable.
When caring for pieces, collectors should remember that Bakelite is sensitive to sunlight. Excessive and continued exposure to heat and light will cause it to discolor, fade, or crumble. You can best care for your Bakelite pieces with metal polishes like Noxon, car polishes like Turtle Wax, or chrome polish like Simichrome. Plastic polishes work least well. Always wash Bakelite items by hand instead of using the dishwasher.
The basic principles of Leo Baekland's "heat and pressure" method of preparation are still in use today, appearing in thousands of varied products. Several things helped to make Bakelite popular in the 1030s through the 1950s: the Art Deco craze, the Depression with consumers' need for color and whimsy, and the advent of the radio.
Vintage pieces remain sought after by collectors and continue to increase in value as they become harder to find and identify.
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