I’ll never forget the day I entered the first grade, in 1961. The classroom smelled of fresh paint and chalk dust, and the sun streamed through the tall windows, a hint of Autumn in the warm breeze. As we nervously took our seats, Mrs. Gebbia stepped forward, cleared her throat, and introduced herself as our teacher.
She was very short, even to a first-grader, and her jet black hair was severely permed in outdated 40’s waves. She wore a red and white polka-dot dress, and pinned at her ample bosom was a swaying clutch of bright red plastic cherries, the green leaves fluttering softly on metal links.
Ah, Bakelite. Color, for me, has never been the same since.
Before modern times, the primary materials for everyday use were metal, wood or glass. Functional, yes, but lacking flair. Resins and ‘plastics’ (from the Latin plasticus and the Greek plastikos, meaning ‘to form’) had been around for awhile. There was gutta percha, a resin, and celluloid (also known as French Ivory), but both had problems. The former was brittle; the latter, extremely flammable.
In 1907, Dr. Leo Hendrik Baekeland of Belgium was experimenting with a new form of insulator when he created the compound now known as phenolic formaldehyde resin (a thermoset plastic which can be mixed, molded, extruded, and retains its shape). He called it ‘BAKELITE’ and this ‘material of a thousand uses’ literally changed the world.
By the 1930’s, Bakelite was used to make radio cabinets, jewelry, and poker sets, as it came in most colors except white; kitchen utensils and appliance handles, due to its ability to absorb heat; and was used in steering wheels, cocktail sets and baby toys. In 1933 alone, 3 million tons of Bakelite buttons were manufactured.
In 1942, the US government considered using Bakelite as the material for pennies, as copper was needed for shell casings. They decided on steel instead.
Bakelite is cool to the touch, clunks rather than clinks when tapped, and has a distinctive, electrical odor when rubbed briskly or run under hot water. A true ‘test’ for Bakelite is by buffing with a metal polish (Simichrome or Maas are the best). These creams go on as pale pink and wipe off as mustard yellow, verifying the piece is genuine. This is also true of CATALIN (“The Gem of Modern Industry’). Like Bakelite, the weight, sound and smell will give it away.
The first Bakelite I bought was a baby rattle, in six colors, back in 1979. It cost me twenty bucks. Since then, prices have risen sharply. The more intricate a piece (a hand-carved bracelet, for example, or a multiple laminate) can send collectors into a swoon. The ‘Philadelphia’ bracelet (so named because it was found at a Pennsylvania antiques show) is a hinged number in seven colors and goes way past a thousand bucks. It also weighs about four pounds.
Collectors refer to Bakelite colors with a foodie’s vernacular: red is ‘cherry’, yellow is ‘butterscotch, brown is ‘root beer’. The ‘ladies who lunch’ wear several pieces at a time: a dozen carved bracelets; chunky rings on each finger. The colors are dreamy and creamy and reminiscent of the first Technicolor films.
I can smell a Bakelite bracelet from a hundred paces, and did once in a Seattle book shop. I knew there was Bakelite somewhere, the moment I entered. The owner laughed and showed me her private stock, off the sales floor. When I asked her why she had so many bracelets, she said, “My past life was in the 1940’s, but I died young. I’m just getting my stuff back!”
If you’re just beginning, think about picking up flatware: if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find knives and forks in a variety of shapes and colors, for about four dollars each. They set a table nicely, especially with a vintage cloth.
By the mid-fifties, Bakelite fell out of favor due to the complex and costly process of production, coupled with its brittle nature. Lighter, cheaper plastics evolved. But it’s still manufactured today, for use in electrical and automotive parts.
Here’s my favorite Bakelite story: a decade ago, a dealer in Chicago had some bracelets for sale. They were still in their original brown paper rolls, labeled ‘1 DZ Easter 1949 Collection’’, and his price was three dollars per roll. My pal Steve and I grabbed them all: twenty-two rolls, eight colors each. When I gave my kid sister a half dozen of them, she asked, “What are these?”
I asked if she remembered Mrs. Gebbia, from first grade…