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Bakelite was both invented and patented by the Belgian born chemist Doctor Leo Henrick Baekeland in New York in 1907. Here we take a further look at its history and use.

What is bakelite?

Bakelite known scientifically as polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhyrdride is an early form of plastic produced from synthetic components and is a form of thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin. This hard mouldable material was the first synthetic thermosetting plastic ever made and played an important part in the mass production of commercial products. Bakelite was considered as an excellent material for several reasons. Not only was bakelite relatively strong but it had excellent heat resistant properties, it was electrically nonconductive, possessed a high resistance against chemical actions and was waterproof. The only real negative aspect of bakelite was the range of possible colours. Bakelite in it’s pure resin state was a lovely amber colour. However, in this state it was quite brittle and hence needed to be strengthened by a process of ’filling’ with other substances, usually being cellulose. Unfortunately, due to the filling process, all colours were opaque and limited to mostly rather dark in tones. This was bakelite’s achilles heel in the aesthetically orientated commercial market place, ultimately being replaced by other plastics that retained it’s positive qualities whilst providing a much wider range of colours. 

Functions of bakelite as a material

Bakelite was referred to by Dr. Baekeland as being ‘the material of a thousand uses.’ This is not far from the truth as throughout the 1920’s and 30’s, bakelite was used for a very wide variety of functional objects.  Bakelite was used in the production of radio and telephone casings, kitchenware, office stationary and typewriters, costume jewellery, children’s toys, board games and musical instruments as well as many other items. Although bakelite is still used in Europe and America for industrial applications, commercial production of bakelite has generally been in rapid decline. However, it is still commercially used in countries such as China, India and Hong Kong. 

Bakelite as a collectable item

In recent years, many old bakelite items have become increasingly collectable due to the rise in popularity of retro and vintage items.

If you have any bakelite items that you would like to sell or have valued, please contact Robin Newcombe, General Valuer at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent for further details.