Material of a Thousand Uses
Photograph by Gregory Tobias. CHF Collections.
Colorful, sturdy, and inexpensive, Bakelite lent itself to a myriad of commercial uses, including these buttons, radios, and telephones. The product made consumer goods and new technologies available to the general public, and set the stage for the future plastics revolution.
Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland created the world’s first fully synthetic material in 1907 with the invention of Bakelite, the first plastic. Baekeland was working in his lab on a replacement for shellac, a natural product made from the excretions of beetles. By subjecting phenol and formaldehyde to very high pressure and heat in an instrument dubbed a Bakelizer, he was able to produce a moldable material that was thermosetting—that is, it would hold its shape when heated.
Its heat and chemical resistance made Bakelite valuable in the manufacture of industrial products like electrical sockets, car parts, and insulators, and its industrial use flourished during the first decade of its production. The fact that Bakelite could be so easily molded also made it particularly suited to mass production. After a process was developed to add color to Bakelite, the consumer market for it exploded, and consumer goods galore could suddenly be made of Bakelite—jewelry, buttons, napkin rings, toothbrushes, game pieces, clocks, radios, telephones . . . you name it. Bakelite jewelry became particularly popular in the 1920s. Even Coco Chanel included it in her accessories collection. Leo Baekeland was featured on the cover of Time in September 1924, and the article dubbed Bakelite the “material of a thousand uses.”
When the United States entered World War II, all materials used to make Bakelite were diverted to the war effort, and it was used in everything from goggles to bombs. By the time the war ended and factories were once again retrofitted for consumer goods, Bakelite had been mostly replaced by other plastics that offered better color selection. But Baekeland set the stage for all future plastic production, and Bakelite materials remain popular collectors’ items. Andy Warhol was an enthusiastic collector, and the auction of his collection of Bakelite items garnered record prices at Sotheby’s in 1987.
The American Chemical Society designated Leo Baekeland’s original Bakelizer a National Historical Chemical Landmark in 1993. You can see a replica of this instrument, as well as a number of Bakelite artifacts, on display at the CHF Museum.