Vol. 3 Issue 3
Bakelite was discovered quite by accident by an independent chemist Dr. Leo Baekeland. The Belgian-born scientist was working on a formula for a less flammable bowling alley floor shellac. Bowling was the latest rage in New York City at that time. Bakelite is a compound of carbolic acid and formaldehyde. It's scientific name is phenolic resin. It was a revolutionary, non-flammable early plastic. It was called " the material of a thousand uses" and was very popular in the 20's, 30's, and 40's.
Bakelite could be produced in a number of colors or, if the pigment was omitted, have a transparent or translucent effect. The more common colors were yellow, brown, butterscotch, green, and red. It could also be "marbelized" by adding two colors together.
For the first ten years, it was primarily used for electrical and automobile insulators and heavy industrial products. Later, it was formed into cylinders or blocks and sold to novelty and jewelry makers. In the beginning, craftsman would carve out designs by hand in the making of jewelry. But, after WWII, they switched to the use of patterned molds. The very flammable celluloid was replaced by Bakelite as a substance for making jewelry.
Besides jewelry, Bakelite was found in many items in the home, especially in the kitchen. Some of the items that it could be found in were flatware handles, napkin holders, salt and pepper shakers, or serving trays. During the depression, bakelite was very popular due to its affordability and bright, cheerful colors.
The Catalin Corporation acquired the patent in 1927. It added 15 new colors and it was produced under the name "Catalin". Their most noted product was the Fada bullet radio. Today, the Catalin Corporation is 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 it could also be found at F.W. Woolworth and Sears. It was a great substitute for those who could no longer afford Tiffany diamonds and Cartier jewelry (the socialites) during the Depression or the common, everyday purchaser of costume jewelry .
In 1942, sales of bakelite cylinders were suspended. It was then used for wartime needs, such as defense phones, aviator goggles, and other products needed for the armed forces. By the end of the war, new plastics had been discovered and were being used. The new types of plastics were fiberglass, lucite, vinyl, and acrylic.
Although Bakelite and Catalin had become obsolete in the production of new items, it remained in the hearts of collectors and can still be found occasionally in flea markets, antique shops, or swap meets. It is a real coup when an item is found for only a few dollars that is worth quite abit more!
One big question that always arises when Bakelite is mentioned....How do you tell if it is Bakelite. There are several methods; some used frequently and some not advised.
An experienced Bakelite collector can usually tell if its Bakelite by its weight. Lucite is usually lighter than a comparable size of Bakelite. There is a lack of mold lines, has a rich color, which generally shows signs of oxidation. If you come across a piece that is white, there is no white Bakelite unless the piece has been refinished within the last 30 days. Bakelite oxidizes rapidly, with whites becoming yellow or mustard, some cobalts turning to greens, and aquas to browns, etc.
One of the most common of the tests is the hot water test. Run a piece under very hot running water, or place it in a steaming pot, for about 30 seconds. If it's Bakelite, you'll notice an odd smell, which has been described as being similar to fresh shellac, burning wire insulation, or nail polish remover. Another test is rubbing the piece with your thumb very hard and rapidly until your thumb gets hot and immediately smelling the piece. The smell will last only one or two seconds, but should be long enough to determine if it is bakelite or not.
Karima Parry's Plastic Fantastic website also recommends:
Formula 409 - Test on a small area, preferably on the back side of a piece or the inside of a bracelet. Put a small amount on a swab and rub on the test area for a few seconds. If it is bakelite, the swab develops a yellowish residue no matter what color the plastic is. After testing, be sure to immediately wash the area with a mild dishwashing soap and warm water and towel dry immediately. Formula 409 is superior to other methods, as it does not strip the finish.
Scrubbing Bubbles Dow Bathroom Cleaner - This used to be a widely used product for testing. It has been found to be very caustic and can destroy the finish on the area of the piece being tested. Therefore, it is highly discouraged for use in testing of Bakelite.
Simichrome Polish - This is expensive but is great for the polishing of Bakelite. It is not recommended for testing. It will often leave a yellowish residue on the cloth, no matter what color the Bakelite is.
Restoring Stripped Bakelite
Many pieces of Bakelite are showing up with the finish being stripped by chemical testing. They are dull and unattractive. Simichrome Polish and Turtle Wax Clear Coat are both recommended. Simichrome produces a hard shiny finish, the Turtle Wax finish produces a less brilliant finish. It may take several applications to restore the finish. To work on a cloudy residue that is sometimes present in carved areas of stripped pieces, use a swab.
The Hot Pin Test - Do not use it!
1). No seller is going to allow a potential buyer stick a hot pin in one of their pieces.
2). It will leave a small purple or burgundy dot that permanently mars the finish.
3). If it turns out to be Celluloid (celllulose nitrate), instead of Bakelite, it could explode and burn!
Some pieces which are Bakelite will not pass some or all of the tests. Pieces that are very dirty, have previously had their finish stripped with chemical test agents, some reds, many blacks, pieces which have resin washed coating, have been covered with a plastics sealant, have been sanded, and newly re-worked pieces made from Bakelite and freshly polished.
Some pieces which are not bakelite will pass some of these tests. It is very important to test with more than one method, including the hot water method and the 409 method. Also, look for oxidation and patina. There are pieces appearing on the market from New Jersey and Taiwan that are being sold as Bakelite. When tested, the smell is just not "right".
Collector's Corner by Michele Alice
Warman's Americana & Collectibles - 8th Edition
Plastic Fantastic by Karima Parry
The next Nancy's Collectibles Newsletter will feature Shawnee Pottery.
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