Focus on – Bakelite, the first plastic

in the 1920s, Bakelite ushered in a new era of style, beauty and versatility, but what is its true legacy?

Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride sounds like a song title from “Mary Poppins”.  Actually, it’s a type of plastic, the more easily pronounceable Bakelite and was the first popular form of “art plastic,” becoming fashionable during the Art Deco period, until the 1950s.

HISTORY

Bakelite was developed in 1907 in New York by Belgian-born chemist, Leo Baekeland, and was the first plastic made from synthetic components with thermosetting properties.  

Patented in 1909, Bakelite’s creation was revolutionary for its electrical non-conductivity and heat-resistant properties.  Once set, this plastic was unaffected by heat, solvents, or acid, and was electrically resistant and shatterproof, perfect for use in industrial items and, later, an array of products from kitchenware, jewellery, children’s toys, and even firearms.

TYPES AND USES OF BAKELITE

Bakelite is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde.

Promoted by Baekeland as “the material of a thousand uses,” the first form of Bakelite was used in the production of household items such as radios and telephones.  Its innovative properties supported the manufacture of light switches, electrical insulators and car parts. 

Lightweight and durable, it could be molded into almost any shape.  Its accessibility and the ease and speed of the molding process, lowered costs and increased the availability of products such as telephones and radios, making them common household goods.   

Initially only available in two colours ‒ black or brown ‒ during the 1920s a new range of colours was introduced.  Now cast into tubes, rods and sheets it could be made into almost anything and Bakelite ushered in a new era of attractive, affordable, convenient consumer goods, making it possible for a broad range of consumers to enjoy products that previously had been inaccessible.

Consumers primarily were attracted to its aesthetic qualities: a sleek, stylish look coupled with a substantial, high-end feel. People bought Bakelite jewellery boxes, lamps, desk sets, clocks, radios, telephones, kitchenware, tableware, and a variety of game pieces such as chess sets, billiard balls, and poker chips.

Bakelite was introduced to the world of fashion in the 1920s as an affordable and attractive replacement for other materials and popularised by designers such as Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. By the 1950s Bakelite jewellery was available in translucent colours and marbled shades.  Designs often had striking patterns, such as polka dots and chevrons and it could be carved into intricate shapes. Bakelite introduced plastics to fashion and would be followed by nylon, polyester, spandex, and more.

By the 1930s, Bakelite was used in the manufacture of game pieces like chessmen, poker chips, dominoes and mahjong sets such as this exquisite example available on Retro Lane.
An unusual, speckled green Bakelite container produced by Nestle (S.A.) (Pty) Ltd, in the c1940s, available on Retro Lane.

As Bakelite became cast, rather than molded, it allowed a variety of colours to be added together during manufacture. End-of-day Bakelite was produced using Bakelite leftover at the end of the day, creating a marbled effect. Bakelite was known to break down and discolour when continuously exposed to sunlight or hot temperatures/liquids. Speckled Bakelite was mixed with two pre-selected colours (mostly a colour and contrasting white) to simulate a speckled egg. It was thought that the speckled Bakelite would not discolour and would last longer, so it was sold as an alternative to solid colour Bakelite.
By the late 1940s, thermosetting phenolic resin products were becoming uneconomical to manufacture as each piece had to be individually cast in a non-reusable mold and then carved, buffed and tumble polished. Newer materials were superseding Bakelite in many areas and the “Age of Plastics” was well and truly established.

BAKELITE TODAY

In recent years, Bakelite products, recognisable for their distinctive look and retro appeal have become popular with contemporary collectors.  Items such as jewellery and radios have become particularly collectible.  Vintage plastics in general are becoming highly collectable and some can fetch surprisingly high prices.  It is worth noting that the term Bakelite is sometimes used to indicate other types of early plastics, including Catalin and Faturan, as well as items made of Bakelite material.

Bakelite was the first truly modern plastic. It was a revolutionary compound, prized for its beauty, versatility, and durability. Its invention ushered in a new era of world commerce but by the end of the 20th century, plastics had become one of the largest pollutants of this planet. Was Bakelite the epitome of innovation and style, or was it the poisoned chalice?

This washing machine was part of a set of doll’s house furniture belonging to my mother, which I was allowed to play with as a child if I had been very, very good (so not very often).

For more on Bakelite jewellery prices, you can read this article from The Spruce Craft, written by Pamela Wiggins.  

https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/bakelite-jewelry-price-guide-4062356