Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, Baby!

We talk about Bakelite a lot at CHF. As the first fully synthetic plastic, created in 1907 by Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland, it enjoys the status of “important historical object.” In 1993 the American Chemical Society even designated Bakelite a National Historical Chemical Landmark.

Unlike a lot of historical objects relevant to CHF’s mission to collect and preserve the history of chemistry, Bakelite is talked about outside our building, too. So many common objects were made of Bakelite in the early part of the 20th century that it is familiar to many people, and museum visitors often gravitate to the display about this early plastic. But there were also a lot of Bakelite “knock-offs”—other plastics that look like Bakelite but are made of a different polymer. Since Bakelite has become a collector’s item, museum curators and amateur collectors alike need to be able to differentiate real Bakelite from look-alikes.

How can you tell if the plastic you’re holding is actually Bakelite? Well, there are a few different tests you can do to check. One test that many people are familiar with is the hot pin or flame test. This test involves taking a hot match and holding it to your Bakelite or heating up a pin and sticking it in. Bakelite is made of phenol and formaldehyde, and the heat will melt the plastic enough to release the smell of formaldehyde. But do you see the problem with this test? Right! You’ve damaged your object, and that devalues your Bakelite. If you’re in a museum, it will make your curator of objects do this:

Better stick to the tests that will not destroy your precious (possibly) historical object! With some common household objects, you can be well on your way to solving the Bakelite mystery.

First up: a safer heat test. Fill a nonreactive bowl with very hot (but not boiling) water and dunk your plastic in. Hold it there for a few seconds and then take a sniff. A piece of Bakelite will have a medicinal smell kind of like a Band-Aid. That’s the formaldehyde I mentioned earlier. The smell is faint and won’t last long, but if you can’t smell anything, chances are it’s not Bakelite.

A more accurate test you can employ uses Formula 409 household cleaner. Wash your piece well to eliminate any dirt that might prevent an accurate test. Dip a Q-tip in the Formula 409 and rub the Q-tip along the plastic.

A chemical in the Formula 409 will react with genuine Bakelite and turn your Q-Tip bright yellow.

As you can see, the plastic poker chip tested above is indeed Bakelite! Not so for this plastic belt buckle. The Q-tip got a little brownish from residual dirt, but the bright yellow that reveals a phenol formaldehyde resin was absent.

Happy testing!

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