Bakelite – The Plastic That Revolutionized Consumer Products, Then Disappeared

It’s difficult to imagine a time when plastics didn’t exist, but plastics are a relatively young material. A little more than a century ago, most products were made of wood, leather, textiles or metal. Since mass production didn’t really exist, these materials sufficed.

New Consumer Products Created Demand For Plastics

An explosion of innovation in personal electronics required new, non-conductive and quickly moldable materials; Bakelite was invented to fill that need.

Pixabay / Creative Commons

Before iPhones, We Had Bakelite Phones

Bakelite was one of the first commercial plastics. Plastics is the term for moldable man-made polymers.

In the early 1900s, scientists were searching for a way to create polymers that would share the large-molecule durability of natural polymers but also have the moldability for unlimited applications. Leo Baekeland was one of these inventors.  He perfected a new polymer made out of phenol, a disinfectant, and formaldehyde, a natural substance mostly famous for its use as an embalming fluid.

According to the American Chemical Society, the new polymer, named Bakelite, could be molded into any shape. It was put to use in consumer electronics such as telephone radio casings.

In its natural form, Bakelite has an attractive, tortoiseshell color. It was soon used for jewelry and to adorn handles on brushes, combs, and even kitchen utensils.

Wikipedia / Creative Commons

Questions About Safety

Although it had many uses, Bakelite was far from perfect. Formaldehyde, one of its base ingredients, was found to be a carcinogen. Becuase of this, the health of workers producing the material was at risk. In addition, Bakelite was brittle, and when broken there were concerns that noxious chemicals would be released in a breathable powder form.

Even after its decline, Bakelite has become a coveted collectible. Its natural amber color uniquely fades with age, adding to its retro thrift-shop chic.  If you want to test an old piece of plastic to determine if it is Bakelite, an easy trick is to rub it with your fingers. The friction will release formaldehyde and you will instantly recognize the smell – just remember that chic odor is not so good for you!

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