What is Bakelite

What is bakelite? If you are an antique collector, take a look at the history of bakelite. Shellac is a natural resin produced by insects in India and Thailand and has a long history of being used as a dye before it was used as a varnish. Celluloid, developed in 1863, was an early shapeable "plastic" based on cellulose, a natural material. What do celluloid and shellac have in common besides having natural components? Bakelite replaced them in several applications.

The birth of Bakelite
Leo Hendrik Baekeland (1863-1944) developed bakelite in 1907. The first true plastic containing no natural materials, Bakelite was made by combining phenol, or carbolic acid, and formaldehyde. In 1910 the General Bakelite Company opened in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. Interestingly to Bakelite collectors, most early Bakelite production was used in electric insulators, automobile insulators and other industrial products. However, some consumer products were made in the 1910s, including billiard balls and telephone receivers. It was not until the 1920s that jewelry was produced in Bakelite. No less than Coco Chanel included Bakelite jewelry in her collections during the late 1920s to early 1930s.

When the Bakelite patent expired in 1927, there was an explosion in the use of this plastic. Catalin Corporation added 15 new colors to the five that Bakelite Corporation produced. Using Bakelite as a material in production was less expensive than other available materials such as wood or metal. For example, radios made with Bakelite casings were significantly less expensive than those made with wood. Many more people were able to listen to the magic of voices heard over radio waves because of this.

The end of an era
Bakelite production, regardless of the manufacturer, ceased in 1942 when companies were required to shift their resources over to war production. After the end of World War II, technology had improved and Bakelite was obsolete. More effective and less expensive plastics were developed over the course of the War.

How can you tell if a piece is made of Bakelite? If you rub a piece of Bakelite until it gets warm, it will smell of formaldehyde. It is heavier than other plastics. A heated pin will not be able to penetrate a Bakelite piece. Make sure that you do not ruin a pretty piece just to find out if it's Bakelite-use this tip carefully.

Note: Bakelite does change colors over a period of time with prolonged exposure to sunlight.

Interesting shellac facts:

    • The bug that makes this natural resin is a little red insect called laccifer lacca.

    • The insects secrete this resin as a cocoon during their reproductive cycle.

    • The Roman writer Claudius Aelianus mentioned shellac as a dye c. 250 AD

Interesting celluloid facts:

    • Celluloid does not have good heat or flame resistance.

    • John Wesley Hyatt, celluloid's inventor, told stories of billiard balls unexpectedly exploding.

    • Dentures were made out of celluloid for a time. They had an unfortunate tendency to get soft with heat.

    • Ping pong balls are still made out of celluloid.

Leo Baekeland, the inventor of bakelite, is well worth another look. During 2000, Time magazine included him as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

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