An Ode to Bakelite
Dec 11, 2013 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
These shining bands of color are worn by vintage mavens everywhere as badges of honor. (The more stacked on your arm – the more street cred!) We can personally attest to the giddy feeling of hearing the clank of our bangles as we go about our daily routine. While this beloved retro plastic is a must-have accessory for any collector and its popularity is gaining momentum, what makes this material so valuable and lovely? How can you tell if it’s really Bakelite or a clever knock-off? Find out everything you want to know in our ode to Bakelite…
Bakelite | “The Material of a Thousand Uses”*
Invented by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland in 1907, Bakelite was introduced to the general public in 1909. By 1924 Baekeland was on the cover of Time magazine and he would later be heralded as the “father of plastics.” Bakelite was his crowning achievement and a product of pure innovation. An imaginative sort of fellow, Baekeland was originally on the hunt for a shellac replacement. Curiousity consumed his creative process and he found that a chemical reaction between phenol and formaldehyde produced an “indestructible” plastic. It lent itself to a variety of shapes; and resisted heat, electricity, and all manner of harsh chemicals.
After World War II, factories were redesigned and better extrusion processes were integrated. These efforts paved the way for Bakelite’s use in common household products, including: kitchenware, childrens’ toys, radios, jewelry boxes, buttons, letter openers, bracelets, clocks, brooches, earrings, and game sets (to name a few). While the product itself is truly revolutionary, its success can be credited to Baekeland’s own marketing expertise. Early on in his career, he was involved with amazing products that never took off because they didn’t engage the general public. He vowed to not repeat these mistakes with Bakelite. Through literature and advertisement, bakelite became an accessible part of everyday life.
* The tagline for Bakelite, first seen in a 1926 booklet that described how integral Bakelite was to daily life.
Neat moments in Bakelite History
- The seed money for Bakelite can be traced to another iconic brand: Eastman Kodak. In 1893 Baekeland was working at Nepera Chemical Company on a product called Velox. A photographic printing paper, Velox allowed photographers to process film in new ways. In 1899 George Eastman bought the rights to Velox for $1 million dollars and Baekeland started his laboratory with these funds.
- The Catalin Company is credited with inventing marbled bakelite. In 1927 they introduced 15 new colors and used these in their production of beads, bangles, and earrings.
- In the 1940s translucent bakelite was manufactured by the Prystal Company
- In 1943, when metal was at a premium due to war efforts, the U.S. Government considered using bakelite for coins. A one-cent coin prototype was produced, however the U.S. Mint decided to pursue a zinc-coated steel approach.
Autheticating Bakelite | Use your senses
This is the best way to determine if you are in the presence of a real bakelite item. Due to its physical composition, when you apply heat you can smell the pungent scent of formaldehyde. There are a couple of standard ways to do this, either dunking the item in hot water or vigorously rubbing the surface with your fingers. Be sure to test every color of the item if there are multiple color tones. Make sure the smell persists; people who make fake bakelite are getting craftier. If the formaldehyde smell disappears right away and is replaced by a plasic smell, then you have a fake piece. The pungent aroma should linger! Gloria Lieberman helps explain this process in an episode of Antiques Roadshow.
Typically in organic hues, bakelite is found in the following colors: yellow, orange, red, green, blue, and purple. The color may be opaque, translucent, or transparent. It can also be marbled. Sometimes bits of other material (flecks or even small figures) are embedded into the bakelite. Tougher to find “end of day” bakelite is composed of the production day’s left over bits. End of day pieces have a very scattered pattern and they have a funky, psychedelic vibe. Keep in mind that purely white bakelite does not exist – anything that was originally white will now be yellowed with age.
When looking inside the bangle, there shouldn’t be any visible seams (the exception is if the piece is two-toned – two colors stacked together during the manufacturing process – but you shouldn’t be able to feel a seam regardless)
Beware of anything that is glued directly onto the surface. Clasps, fasteners, or embellishments were typically attached with metal hardware or integrated with the item. Keep your eyes open for drilled holes – this is a good sign!
When you run your fingers along the surface it should feel very smooth, as though you are gliding. As a heftier plastic, you should be able to feel the weight of real bakelite. This is a trickier analysis and definitely takes a bit of practice to perfect!
While not as common, some bakelite pieces have extraordinary carvings. To be authentic, the color within the carving must match the outer surface color. (It’s important to note that the carved recesses may have been painted for decorative purposes.)
Look out for anything that feels cheap and doesn’t show any signs of wear. If you’ve got a feeling in the pit of your stomach, follow it! There is no such thing as new bakelite, so be careful of any vendor that tries to pitch new bakelite products to you. As with most things vintage, your best bet in finding authentic treasures is to buy from a trusted shop owner. They can speak to the history of the item and answer any questions you may have.
Taking Care of your Bakelite
- Direct sunlight is bakelite’s kryptonite! Try and keep it out of the sun and store it wrapped up in a soft cloth.
- If you need to clean your bakelite, be gentle. Hand wash only with soapy water, then dry with a clean and soft towel.
- Polishing bakelite is surprisingly easy, you just need some elbow grease and Turtle Wax. Polishing the surface will help to remove any small scuffs or scratches your treasure obtained in its previous life.
- Spin it on your arm three times for good luck (just kidding – added that one in there for fun!)
Cause A Frockus would like to thank some tremendous resources: Antiques Roadshow, Wikipedia, Vintage Jewelry Design: Classics to Collect & Wear by Caroline Cox, the lovely people who put their images on Wikipedia Commons without restriction, and American Plastic: A Cultural History by Jeffrey L. Meikle.
For our readers:
We’d love to see your favorite vintage plastic finds and hear what you love about bakelite. Have any tips for finding or identifying vintage plastics? Share them with us below!