What is galalith
Feb 6, 2015 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
As any of my Instagram friends know, I’ve been tackling a new reading project as of late. It’s a thick volume and at first I was intimidated, so I decided to read a little bit each night. It’s quickly become an enjoyable part of my bed-time routine – now I can hardly put it down! And I’ve discovered there’s no better way to ensure great dreams than by indulging in beautiful vintage jewelry and fashion right before tucking in. Currently I’m in the 1920s section (one of my favorite eras) and I was struck by a term I wasn’t familiar with – galalith. So, being the retro detective I am, I did some research. Join me as I answer the question: what is galalith?
Galalith is a vintage plastic. And much like its peer bakelite, it was originally intended for a completely different purpose. Isn’t it funny to think that bakelite was discovered whilst looking for a shellac replacement?? Galalith was intended to rock the classroom – that’s right – the classroom. A chemist set out to find an alternative to the standard heavy, slate blackboard. You know all those stock photos of conference rooms with white boards, people excitedly sketching out groundbreaking ideas in the foreground? Well, this was the dream Wilhelm Krische was chasing back in 1897. (Only replace the office workers with children practicing their penmanship!)
Krische partnered his ideas with findings from Austrian chemist Adolph Spitteler and French chemist Auguste Trillat. What this trio of brain power produced was a synthetic plastic that combined casein with formaldehyde. Your next question is probably – what is casein? (I know that was mine). Casein is a protein found in milk and when mixed with formaldehyde you get an odorless and virtually nonflammable result. This product (initially marketed as Lactoform) debuted at the 1900 Paris Universal Exhibition.
As you can imagine, the fashion industry was captivated by this new wonder material. Produced in sheets, Galalith was super inexpensive and lent itself to cutting, drilling, gluing, embossing, and dying. Galalith could be altered to make highly realistic-looking imitation gemstones. When polished and glossed up it could look like ivory or horn – two materials that were in grave demand. By 1906 Galalith was patented and designers rejoiced. It was the favored material of the button industry and directly competed with celluloid. (Although Galalith had a leg up due to the whole non-flammable thing).
Piano keys. Household products. Fashion accessories. Pens (like the one above). Galalith was the darling of the European plastics industry (although it never really took off in the US, where it was distributed under the name Aladdinite). But before long its main weakness reared its ugly head – Galalith can’t be molded. When you combine that with the fact that milk was rationed for food purposes only in WWII, production screeched to a halt.
If you are starting a galalith collection, take care when storing your finds. As the Institute of Conservation shares, “the problems most usually associated with this material are cracking and splitting due to physical and environmental stresses.” If you get a piece that needs repair, seek out the advice of a conservation specialist to make sure you can treasure it for years to come…
For our readers: Which is your favorite vintage plastic? Bakelite, celluloid, lucite, or our new friend: galalith??