Words by Charlie Adams
“It’s not plastic, it’s Bakelite!” Is most probably the most common sentence I use when talking about my vintage collection. Friends and family understand my love of past era clothing, accessories and jewellery, but often do not share or understand my passion when it comes to Bakelite. The enjoyment and enthusiasm I have when a new bangle is on its way and the amount I am willing to spend, others find bewildering, thinking it is only a cheap piece of plastic.
Out of everything, my Bakelite bangles bring me the most delight. While most of my vintage collection is hidden away in the wardrobe under dust protectors, draws or tidied away in hat boxes, my bangles are on full display to bring a smile upon my face every time I enter my bedroom. Finding the right combination (or stack) of bangles to wear can set off any outfit; from modern or vintage clothing, having an arm of coordinating bangles makes me feel special.
It is almost impossible to imagine the world without plastic. We use it in every aspect of life: utensils, technology, clothing, transport, toys, computers, appliances, carpets, packaging, medical equipment… the list is endless.
Before plastic, everything had to be made from natural resources – metal, leather, wood or plants. The first natural plastic type substance was made three centuries ago from plants and shellac, for example in Central America they have played with rubber balls for over 3,000 years, however this form of early natural plastic was both hard and expensive to make.
The Victorian era saw the invention of Celluloid (in 1870 by John Wesley Hyatt). Although this was extremely useful for the expanding need for consumer items, it had many downsides as was expensive to make, hard to mould and not suitable for mass production. With the start of the industrial revolution, the need for a new economical sustainable material was created, with chemists finding the answer.
In 1909, Leo Baekeland created Bakelite (phenol-formaldehyde / phenolic resin), the first synthetic plastic. This discovery revolutionized manufacturing into what we take for granted today. Its properties were ideal for a wide range of items – as it is heat resistant, it does not conduct electricity, it is lightweight and durable and – most importantly – it could be moulded into any shape. It not only found its place in the emerging technological industries but it also opened the door for a new era of cheap consumer goods. Baekeland started his semi-commercial production of Bakelite within his own laboratory, by 1910 with the daily output being 180 liters, he formed the Bakelite Corporation and by 1930 production was so successful that they occupied a 128 acre plant in New Jersey.
The Bakelite Corporation used the mathematical symbol for infinity as its logo and the slogan, “The Material of a Thousand Uses”, which was appropriate as in almost every aspect of life, moulded Bakelite was to be found. Bakelite was everywhere and it seemed to have no boundaries.
In 1927 the Catalin Corporation bought the Bakelite patent, refining the formula as a cast resin instead of a mouldable one and called it Catalin; they granted licenses to many other companies to make Bakelite/Catalin for a small royalty fee. Bakelite is a trade name, however all phenolic resins regardless of which company made them, are now commonly referred to as Bakelite, especially as it is impossible to tell them apart, although those with the Bakelite Corporation stamp on do have an added charm. The Catalin Corporation was responsible for nearly 70% of what is now commonly referred to as Bakelite.
A surprising benefactor of this new material was the fashion industry. Coco Chanel was one of the many designers that offered Bakelite jewellery and accessories. Bakelite jewellery became accessible to all by the 1920s and gained popularity due to it being affordable and attractive. By the 1950s, different techniques were formed resulting in a wider range of colours available, including marbled and translucent shades, and pieces becoming more attractive with artist carving patterns or inserting polka dots.
WWII saw the suspension of most Bakelite production. The vast array of colours was halted to black and green and used only for the war effort making defence phones or aviator goggles. By the time the war ended, new discoveries had opened the way for injection-moulded plastics such as acrylic, fiberglass and vinyl and manufacturers soon swapped to these newer, cheaper products. Bakelite production was limited, mainly for jewellery and buttons, but this soon died out by the late 1960s. Phenolic resin is still used today but mostly for its insulating properties for electrical items, although the Belgium company Saluc uses a phenolic resin called Aramith to make their Billiard balls, which they claim are used by almost 80% of players worldwide.
Bakelite was the first synthetic plastic and set the stage for all plastics. Baekeland’s creation set the stage for the Age of Plastics and initiated the growth of a worldwide industry that now employs over 60 million people. Each day, thousands of products are manufactured and moulded all over the world, in a complex process that originally started with Bakelite.
It not only granted us access to consumer goods but also helped improve our lives for the better from medical equipment to storing food. Time magazine in 1924 predicted that Bakelite would soon be used in almost everything we saw, touched and used – although this is not quite true, it’s close enough.
From starting with a single Bakelite spacer bangle, my collection has grown. My favourite bangles are my carved bamboo, with dots and scalloped being close behind. I also collect Bakelite brooches and have recently turned my attention to the lovely animal themed napkin holders. Once you start collecting it is hard to stop, with so many items available, not only to be worn but to add to a vintage dressing table or kitchen, the possibilities are endless. I still dream of owning an original Bakelite telephone, but almost every day I find a new Bakelite item to add to my wish list.
To me Bakelite will never be just a piece of plastic; you are wearing a piece of history that helped shape – or rather mould – the world.