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23 Jul 2014, 12:00 AM

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Bakelite

  • Mark Hill
  • 09 Sep 2011

Where would we be today without plastic? Just think of how many plastic things you handle from the moment you wake up. First there’s your alarm clock, then your toothbrush, and of course your computer and mobile phone. Plastic is everywhere, and in a way that's thanks to the sucess of Bakelite.

Although plastic-like materials had existed in the 19th century, it wasn’t until 1907 that Belgian chemist Dr Leo Hendrik Baekeland perfected the combination of two commonly found chemicals to create the first truly synthetic plastic. Marketed as ‘the material of a thousand uses’, the resilient product lived up to its name and revolutionised the world, being used in homes and factories, on clothes and even in motor cars.

Easily and economically molded and colored, Bakelite is most commonly found in a mottled brown color, but can also be found in black or creamy white. Harder to find and more desirable to collectors are the brighter colors of mottled green, blue and red. One good way to identify Bakelite is to rub it hard with your finger until warm. This creates a ‘phenolic’ chemical smell, not unlike mothballs.

Collectors are most likely to come across objects made for the home. Most of these are functional, and can include kitchenalia such as pots, cups, toast racks, and even light switches and door handles. Desk accessories are also commonly found and can fetch more. Prices remain very affordable, ranging from a couple of pounds upwards, depending on size, color and the type of object.

But it’s color and style that really make collectors’ reach for their wallets. The 1920s and 30s were undoubtedly the ‘golden age’ of plastics, which exploded in a rainbow of different colors and types, both led by the fashionable Art Deco style of the period. Think clean geometric lines, stepped sides, bright greens, reds and yellows, and shiny chrome.

Radios are perhaps the most notable, and valuable, items found. One of the most notable British designs is the round ‘ECKO’ radios found in stylish black and chrome or brown. These can fetch anything from £300-800 or more, with rumours of a rare bright green example having been sold for £20,000. More colorful is the streamlined FADA ‘Bullet’ from the US. Fetching anything from £300 upwards, look out for the red, white and blue ‘All American’, which can fetch up to £2,500.