One of those things that I find from time to time when looking for vintage pieces to put in my shop is Bakelite. It’s pretty and comes is more forms than you would believe. It is one of the original plastics, but also a force unto itself. It is collected and loved by lots of people. I did happen to come across some in the form of a cheese spreader. This is called Butterscotch Bakelite (for the color).
In order to list it in the shop as Bakelite, I had to figure out how to test it without ruining it. One way, the way I used, is to warm it up under hot (not boiling) water. It gives off a particular smell. Some say it’s “acrid” or smells like “camphor” or “formeldehyde” I’m not sure if I would describe it as acrid, but it does have a particular smell when warmed.
Another way I’ve heard about to identify Bakelite (without destroying it) is to spray 409 cleaner – it has to be 409 (not another cleaner)- on a cotton swab. When you swipe it across real Bakelite, the cotton swab turns yellow. Just make sure the item is clean and the yellow isn’t dirt! Also be sure to wash the item off after this test so the cleaner doesn’t stay on the plastic.
Bakelite is a polymer. According to ASC.org, plastic comes from the Greek word plastikos meaning moldable. Plastics are in a chemical class called “polymers.” You can check out ASC.org for more of the real technical chemical makeup.
Bakelite itself was created by Leo Baekeland while looking into the properties of mixed chemicals for a moldable resin. He discovered what was to become Bakelite in 1907. It was used mostly as electric insulators because one of its properties is that it was moldable until it cured and then it kept its shape even when warmed. ASC.org actually has excerpts from his scientific notebook from the day he discovered it! How cool is that?!
By 1930, they had a 128-acre facility in New Jersey. Bakelite has the ability to be molded quickly. And as I said, holds its shape when heated, making it a thermosetting resin. Because of this property, it was really useful in the automobile business. They made bases and sockets for light bulbs, distributor caps, insulators and more (ASC.org).
This is about the time they started making jewelry and other things with it. Telephones, handles for things, radios and more. The stuff had thousands of uses! Their slogan was literally “The Material of a Thousand Uses” with the infinity sign ∞.
Collectors Weekly says that costume jewelry manufacturers liked it because it was “hard enough to be cut and polished” which lent itself to making all kinds of things. The colors had names like Butterscotch (like my piece), Egg Yolk, Mississippi Mud. There are translucent pieces which are harder to find. These are Lime Jell-O, Root Beer and Cherry Juice.
They were also able to laminate colors to each other. One Art Deco treatment was to take Ebony Bakelite and combine it with rhinestones or inlaid silver. This was to imitate jet pieces from the Victorian Era (Collectors Weekly). Bracelets were really the popular item for Bakelite. The most collectible being the Philadelphia bracelets (from an auction in 1985).
So why did they stop producing Bakelite? There is a downside of Bakelite and that is it’s brittle until infused with other fillers which makes it super tough. Many times they infused it with cellulose in the form of sawdust. The problem with this is that when they tried to color it the colors were often dull and opaque.
The actual resin is amber in color but not everyone wants amber. That is why it was eventually replaced by newer plastics that had the same moldable properties but would take color better. Ah, fashion spelled the end of Bakelite. But I have to say, it was Bakelite that really paved the way for the new age of plastics as we know it now.
Are you one of those people that love Bakelite? Have a small (or large) stash? Tell me about it! I love to hear from you. And, as always, find me partying at the link parties listed on the right. Have a great week!