In The Age of Plastics

Bakelite is not your typical plastic. This material has been used thousands of different ways and played an important role in the lives of many women in the 20th century.

Belgian-born chemist, Leo Baekeland discovered a nonflammable material in 1907. The material was named after him, Bakelite. It was the first entirely man made plastic and the first thermo-setting plastic— one that hardened permanently when cured and couldn’t be softened again with the application of heat.

IMG_4746.jpgThe first uses of Bakelite, was in electrical insulations and heat resistant radios, telephones and auto parts. Things changed when the stock market crashed in 11929. Gold and precious gem jewelry was sold off to help ease the fiscal suffering many were facing and the idea of buying new jewelry was out of the question for many families who now found themselves out of work and home. Bakelite became the cheap alternative to silver and gold jewelry.

Bakelite was molded into colorful necklaces, bracelets and earrings. Brooches and pin were particularly possible, even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dog, Fala, appeared on numerous Bakelite pins in a number of colors. In the midst of finical disaster the new trend of affordable colorful plastic allowed women to “put on happy faces”. Bakelite colors simulated jade, amber, ivory, pearls, and marble. The items were engraved with beautiful and intricate designs. Bakelite didn’t just improve women’s lives aesthetically put also as homemakers. Throughout the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, Bakelite was used to make household items such as kitchenware, buttons, telephones, radios, toys and so much more.IMG_4780.jpg

While common use of Bakelite decreased over the years, today, Bakelite is a popular collectors item, a piece of jewelry that might have been around 20 cents in the 1930s could possibly reach upwards to a thousand dollars today. Whether it is radios from the 1940s or bracelets from the 1920s people are still finding joy in the famous plastic.

Melissa Jones

Discover more about the history of Bakelite and its many uses at out current exhibit “Bakelite In The Age Of Plastics”


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