Bakelite was one of the first plastics to be developed in the early 20th century. Unlike celluloid, the first plastic, Bakelite would not burn when exposed to high heat. This characteristic, along with its ability to be molded, made it an ideal material for knobs and handles attached to metal cookware. Manufacturers soon found a plethora of uses for Bakelite.
Bakelite was developed around 1909 by Belgian-born chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in New York City. Considered one of the first plastics, it is a synthetic resin resulting from mixing formaldehyde and phenolic acid. In the years after the invention of Bakelite, development in the plastics industry exploded. With the proliferation of these products, plastics were lumped together and commonly called Bakelite. Authentic Bakelite was produced until about 1980. Reproductions are available after that year but don't enjoy collectible status.
Pool cue balls, jewelry, radio cases, knobs, buttons, and knife and cookware handles were all made of Bakelite at one time. Found to be heat-resistant, Bakelite was an improvement over hard rubber and celluloid knobs and handles. Its heat resistance also made it a favored material in manufacturing electrical insulation as well as automobile and industrial components. Bakelite was a favorite material for making inexpensive and colorful jewelry during the Great Depression. It was used extensively in World War II for the production of goggles and telephones. After the war, Bakelite once again found its way into knobs and handles used on more modern cookware and furniture.
Collectors use various methods to identify authentic Bakelite items. Rubbing a finger across a vintage plastic handle until a distinctive smell emerges is one means. If the item smells like formaldehyde or carbolic acid, it is probably Bakelite. Others recommend dipping the item in hot water and sniffing for traces of the same two compounds.
Bakelite gives off a dull clunking or thudding sound when struck. Authentic Bakelite is also heavier in feel when compared to another plastic item.
Bakelite collectors often contend that this venerable plastic is no longer being made. The original Bakelite company ceased operation in 1980 but at least one company in Japan is still producing it as of 2011. Additionally, older pieces are being reworked to create new items. For the collector, only pre-1980 handles and other objects are considered to be authentic Bakelite. These specimens are more desirable.
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