Billed as the “material of a thousand uses,” Bakelite went into commercial production in 1922.
An article in the October 1925 issue of the trade publication Plastics magazine claimed the new synthetic phenolic resin could be used for “jewelry, smokers’ articles … sealing electric light bulbs in metal bases … varnishes … electric coils, lacquers … silent gears … and molding material, from which are formed innumerable articles of utility and beauty.” We know that resin today as Bakelite, named after its inventor, Leo Baekeland, the chemist whose process was patented in 1909.
The scientific name, though, is polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, “a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin, formed from a condensation reaction of phenol with formaldehyde,” according to a Wikipedia entry. This revolutionary new type of phenolic resin, or synthetic plastic, was heat resistant, did not conduct electricity, was completely insoluble, totally inflexible and much more economical to produce in large quantities than celluloid, the plastic of the time. It was perfect for molding articles of utility such as insulators, military equipment, automobile parts and the early rotary dial telephone.
The case of this Wards Airline brand tabletop radio is made of molded Bakelite. Image coutesy of Goldfinch Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
The first tabletop radio, though, was one of the first items that was both an article of utility and of beauty when introduced in dark brown, black and dark marbled Bakelite. While not exactly a decorator choice, the darker colors concealed the use of cotton, paper, glass fabrics, nylon, canvas, linen, sawdust, fiber and even asbestos to strengthen an otherwise brittle compound.
But, if darker tones represented early Bakelite, how is it jewelry and other items made of lighter, mostly primary colors are commonly sold as Bakelite? Because those items are made of Catalin.
The 1940s FADA brand tabletop radio is a prized collector’s item for its Catalin case in butterscotch with red trim. Image courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers
Known as a cast phenol formaldehyde resin, Catalin, created in 1927, is a thermosetting polymer not unlike Bakelite, except the production is in two stages, where Bakelite requires more of a multistage curing process. More importantly, Catalin was transparent allowing the use of color or mixture of colors during the manufacturing process. Jewelry, bangles, beads, brooches, tableware and other useful household items are made of Catalin, although it is usually identified as Bakelite to collectors.
There are key differences in Bakelite and Catalin. As was mentioned, Bakelite is manufactured with fillers and produced in darker colors to disguise the fillers making the item more stable over time. Bakelite also has a heavier feel.
Different examples of Bakelite and Catalin bangles with plain, worked and laminated versions that sold at auction for $300. Image courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers
On the other hand, Catalin, because of its shorter manufacturing process is lighter but less stable and eventually will crack or craze. Early colorful radios from FADA and Emerson made from Catalin, for example, tend to warp, while the colors tend to darken over time with white turning to yellow.
Bracelets in vibrant green, yellow, red or combined shades laminated together for a more colorful style are the most desired in their original shade, with figurals in the shape of plants, animals and flowers easily the most sought after by collectors.
Other Early Plastics
Collectors will occasionally find other early plastic-like material advertised at auction. Some were experimental before Bakelite or Catalin and others just had small production runs. They are no longer being manufactured, but turn up as collectibles.
Early celluloid was generally used for household items such as the handle for this German-made straight razor, which depicting a zeppelin flying over a city. Image courtesy of Jeffrey S. Evans and Associates and LiveAuctioneers
Celluloid is considered the first true thermoplastic when it was marketed as Parkesine in 1856 and Xylonite in 1869. It is made from a compound of nitrocellulose and camphor which is quite flammable. The covering over early political buttons, billiard balls, film stock until 1950, and vintage ivory-like handles were made with celluloid. Pingpong balls and some guitar picks are still made from celluloid today.
Political buttons like this rare William Jennings Bryan/John W. Kern pocket mirror of 1900 used celluloid as an overlay. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers
By 1880 Crystalate, invented by George Henry Burt, from nitrocellulose, camphor and alcohol, was based on an earlier form of plastic known as bonzoline. Crystalate was used mostly for gramaphone records and billiard balls and has long since been discontinued.
Faturan, possibly named for chemist Esmaeel Almail Faturan in the early 19th century originally mixed natural resins to form worry beads (komboloi) and counting beads (misbaha). A synthetic version made by Traun & Son, a German company, was made from early 20th century to the 1940s. Original Faturan, though, eventually oxides to a dark red no matter the original color and is rare as a collectible.
Galalith is a late 19th century plastic that utilized casein (found in milk) and formaldehyde to form a milky white hard plastic, but once set it could not be molded. By World War II, production was dramatically reduced to save milk for civilian use. Fashion designer Coco Chanel utilized galalith as costume jewelry and is still being produced mostly as buttons. Galalith emits a milky smell when rubbed.
Micarta is a phenolic resin like the others, but was used as a laminate over linen, canvas, paper, fiberglass and carbon fiber. Developed by George Westinghouse by 1910, it was used to make knife handles, handgun grips, pool cues, hardhats and early fan blades. Micarta is usually dark in color.
Virtually all of these early plastics have been either discontinued or have limited industrial use since the 1950s due to its labor-intensive mold and casting process. Yet, auction results seem to treat these early plastics similarly when it comes to collector value, except Faturan which has become more of a museum piece due to its rarity.
There are contemporary plastics that resemble Bakelite, so-called “Fakelites” that are treated differently. These fakes have similar design and production methods as Bakelite and are hard to spot except on close examination. Veteran collectors know the uniquely identifiable “clunk” sound that two pieces of vintage Bakelite make when tapped together. Bakelite also feels heavier. Collectors sometimes use the hot water method to test for authentic Bakelite (dip in hot water, rub and test for the smell of formaldehyde) or the 409 method (just a touch of Formula 409 cleaner or Simichrome brand polish on a cotton swab on a hidden area and the swab should turn yellow; rinse the item immediately). You can just dry rub it as well and smell the telltale formaldehyde (works best with dark Bakelite).
Vintage Bakelite may also have been reworked, recut or redesigned without being marked as such. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is a fake or even a reproduction and its auction value isn’t compromised, but it may be judged differently from its original use. Just be warned that reworking Bakelite yourself produces the harmful effects from the phenol and formaldehyde used in its manufacture.
As it turns out, whether wearing Catalin bangles from Coco Chanel or listening to big bands on an Emerson Bakelite radio, whatever you call it, they’re equally collectible.
Baker, L. Plastic Jewelry of the 20th Century, 2003
Holdsworth, Ian, Cast Phenolic Resin, Plastics Historical Society, plastiquarian.com, undated
Meikle, Jeffrey L., American Plastic: A Cultural History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1995
Wiggins, Pamela, Collecting Bakelite Jewelry, sprucecrafts.com, April 4, 2014
Wiggins, Pamela, 6 Ways to Identify Bakelite, sprucecrafts.com, August 24, 2018
Wikipedia.com, Bakelite, undated