Bakelite: A Revolutionary Early Plastic

Text by Lloyd Fadem and Stephen Z. Fadem, M.D. Photographs by Doug Congdon-Martin

IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE that one can combine two unlikely substances like carbolic acid and formaldehyde to produce a beautiful and versatile substance such as phenolic resin or "Bakelite," a revolutionary, non-flammable, early plastic. "The material of a thousand uses," as it was called, made a splash in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

Around the turn of the century, the Belgian born scientist Dr. Leo Baekeland, working as an independent chemist, came upon the compound quite by accident. Anyone familiar with the newspaper printing business is aware of the Velox used as a proof; that was his first discovery. Velox was invented in 1899 and is still in use today. After selling the rights to this product to Eastman Kodak for three quarters of a million dollars, he started developing a less flammable bowling alley floor shellac; bowling was becoming the latest rage in New York City. Dr. Baekeland soon realized that a resin that was both insoluable and infusible could have a much wider appeal when used as a molding compound. He obtained a patent and started the Bakelite Corporation around 1910.

Phenolic resin could be produced in a multitude of colors, commonly yellow, brown, butterscotch, green and red. Ommitting the pigment could produce a transparent or translucent effect. The resin could be molded or cast, depending on variations in the formula. For molding, the formula was cooked until resinous, spread out in thin sheets to harden, then ground to a fine consistency. At this point, powdered fillers and pigment were added, to enable the resin to be molded and to add color. This mixture was then put through hot rollers which created large sheets of colored, hardened resin. These sheets were then ground into a very fine powder which was molded under high heat and pressure into the final product form. As a molded material the resin's drawback was the limited range of colors which could be created. For casting, the formula was modified slightly, enabling the resin to be poured into lead molds and then cured in ovens until it polymerized into a hard substance. The liquid resin could be tinted to any color or "marbelized" by mixing two colors together.

Photo of Bakelite ItemsFor the first ten years or so after its introduction, the resin was used primarily to make electrical and automobile insulators and heavy industrial products. Eventually, uses for the resin spread into the consumer market. Castings were made in the shape of cylinders or blocks, and then sold to novelty and jewelry makers. Industrial designers began experimenting with the new material. Fine craftsmen sculpted the molded products on fast wheels with razor-like tools to carve out designs that the world has not seen since; after World War II, most companies switched to creating designs through the use of patterned molds, instead of hand-carving. Bakelite replaced flammable celluloid, previously the most popular synthetic material for molded items, as a major substance for jewelry production.

The process to the collector of today may not be significant, as Bakelite is now treasured for its unique, unreproducible beauty. A deeply carved half inch bangle bracelet may sell for $225.00, and a two and one half inch bangle may command $900.00. Bakelite often acquires a patina within a few months to a few years of its date of production, and metamorphisizes into a completely different appearing color. The red, white and blue Bakelite designs of yesterday have mellowed into lovely yellows, reds and blacks, enhancing further the value of those rare pieces which have continued to maintain their original color and luster.

Bakelite's many uses allowed it to become a standard item in the family home of the 1930s and 1940s. It was frequently found in the kitchen, in the form of flatware handles, rabbit or chicken napkin holders, salt and pepper shakers, or serving trays. During the Depression Bakelite sold more than any other commercial product, and was loved by the public for its brilliant and cheerful colors and its affordability.

Bakelite RadioWhen the Bakelite patent expired in 1927, it was acquired by the Catalin Corporation that same year. They began mass production under the name "Catalin," using the cast resin formula which enabled Catalin to add 15 new colors to the original five produced by the Bakelite Corporation, which used the limited color range molded formula, as well as the now-famous marbelized effect. One of their most notable products was the Fada bullet radio. The Catalin Corporation was responsible for nearly 70% of all phenolic resins that exist today.

Bakelite-Catalin was sold mostly by Saks Fifth Avenue, B. Altman and Bonwit Teller, but was also on the shelves of F.W. Woolworth and Sears. To the wealthy socialites, whose husbands had fallen on tough times during the Depression, with Tiffany diamonds and Cartier jewelry now well beyond their means, the vibrantly colorful carved jewelry adorned with rhinestones became de riguer for cocktail parties and formal dinners. Yet, Catalin and Bakelite were within everyone's reach with Depression prices ranging from twenty cents to three dollars. Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, often spoke of the versatility of Bakelite, as did Elsa Schiaparelli, who was constantly contracting with the Bakelite and Catalin Corporations for exclusive buttons for her dress designs.

But in 1942 Bakelite and Catalin suspended sales of their colorful cylinders to costume jewelry manufacturers in order to concentrate on the wartime needs of a nation which had totally shifted its focus. Defense phones and aviator goggles, as well as thousands of other Bakelite products, found their way to armed forces around the world. The scheme shifted from the 200 vibrant colors which brightened the dark days of the Depression to basic black, the no-nonsense symbol of a nation at war. By the end of the war, new technology had given birth to injection-molded plastics, and most manufacturers switched to less labor-intensive and more practical means of developing products. The next generation of plastics had been born - lucite, fiberglass, vinyl and acrylic - and they were molded into products commonplace in our everyday lives today.

Bakelite and Catalin became obsolete, but survive in the hearts of collectors who hunt flea markets, swap meets and antique shows for the Depression treasures of a generation now consigned to the pages of history. Bakelite was given a boost in the mid-1970s by artist, photographer, and flea market icon Andy Warhol who fell in love with Bakelite carvings and whimsical Martha Sleeper pins, and amassed one of the largest collections.

Upon Warhol's untimely death in 1987, Bakelite reached the high prices which it ironically had never been able to command during its peak in the Depression. It is still quite possible and most exciting to discover that a deeply carved bracelet or a Martha Sleeper designed pin purchased for $10.00 in a junk shop has a real value between $900.00 and $1,500.00!

In conclusion, Bakelite, an early plastic, represented an affordable solution for a unique and short time in history when a nation hinged on the edge of economic disaster and needed a cheerful substitute for the lost elegance of the 1920s. Now, while its usefulness as a practical product has long been replaced, Bakelite exists as a treasure. The prospective collector should acquire a sense and appreciation for Bakelite's true value, and a network of reliable dealers to purchase from.

Several books on the market are invaluable Bakelite aids to the new collector; they are identified below.

  • The Best of Bakelite and Other Plastic Jewelry, by Dee Battle and Alayne Lasser...
  • Art Plastic by Andrea D. Noto...
  • Plastic Jewelry by Lyngerda Kelley and Nancy Schiffer...
  • Bakelite Jewelry by Tony Grasso...

Lloyd Fadem is a well known collector and mid-century enthusiast whose interest lies in architectural and industrial design of the thirties, forties and fifties. He is currently working on the book, "Cool Stuff." - Stephen Z. Fadem, M.D., is a prominent Houston nephrologist whose hobby is history, with a current fascination on the development of American technology and its impact upon our everyday lives. He is collaborating with his brother on the book "Cool Stuff."

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