November 30 2014
Polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride — better known as bakelite, was among the first synthetic plastics. Heavy, hardy, lustrous and rather versatile, it had become omnipresent within a few decades of its 1907 patent. Telecom utilities issued standard bakelite phones by the hundreds of thousands, it was liberally used in electronics and machinery components and allowed for unprecedented new shapes for everything from radios to toys to gambling dice. Your gran even likely decked herself out in fashionable bakelite accessories from Marshall Fields or Gimbels.
As the material has fallen out of wide use thanks in part to advances in plastics and other synthetics, original bakelite accessories have become increasingly collectible — with very detailed pieces by a handful of designers easily fetching upwards of $1000. Even run-of-the-mill pieces have become sought after for their offbeat charm and sanguine midcentury forms.
Our friends at Bygones Vintage in Richmond shared several whimsical, brightly-coloured originals with us. Classic bakelite is made by combining wood flour (essentially a very finely ground sawdust) with carbolic acid and formaldehyde. This last ingredient, a pleasant if creepy throwback, is one key way of verifying a piece’s authenticity—plastic knock offs are apparently commonplace. Rub the piece vigorously and if you smell formaldehyde, you’ve got grade-A bakelite.
Translucent pieces are usually lucite, a plastic of similar vintage that still sees wide use as perspex and in safety glass.
All bakelite and lucite pieces shown available at Bygones Vintage.