Bakelite, “The Material of a Thousand Uses”
14 artifacts in this set
At the turn of the 20th century, industrial chemists sought substitutes for shellac and hard rubber – naturally derived materials increasingly in demand for various industrial applications. In 1907, Leo Baekeland heated a mixture of phenol (derived from coal tar) and formaldehyde (derived from wood alcohol) to form a dark, durable resin he called "Bakelite." Baekeland had created the first chemically synthetic plastic.
Baekeland filed for patents and began quietly teasing the news of his radical new material in 1907. When he publicly introduced Bakelite in 1909, interest multiplied. The resin's nonconductive properties made it suitable for use in molded components for electrical and communication devices, such as the knife switch above and this telephone handset. Other formulations of Bakelite were used as sealants, varnishes, and protective coatings.
General Bakelite Company Trade Publication, "Bakelite on the Automobile, Motor Cycle, Motor Boat, and Aeroplane," 1916
From the start, Baekeland imagined wide-ranging applications for his new material. He formed the General Bakelite Company in 1910 to cultivate Bakelite's commercial prospects. In addition to growing business in the electrical and communications fields, the automotive industry became a major customer. This booklet advertised molded Bakelite components for cars, including ignition apparatus, radiator caps, and steering wheels.
Bakelite's commercial potential enticed others to infringe on Baekeland's patents or find workarounds to create their own phenol formaldehyde, or "phenolic," resins. Two early competitors included Condensite – developed at Thomas Edison's West Orange laboratory for use in phonograph records – and Redmanol, the result of a Chicago furniture company’s search for a synthetic varnish.
The general public remained relatively unfamiliar with Bakelite (and its competitors) for years. Early plastics were hidden – both literally, within power stations or automobiles, and figuratively, as unassuming components of everyday objects. Where Bakelite appeared in the home – as the stem of a tobacco pipe, plate covering an electrical outlet, or handle of a kitchen appliance – it resembled hard rubber.
After a decade of legal disputes, the major early competitors – Bakelite, Condensite, and Redmanol – consolidated as the Bakelite Corporation. The companies agreed to simplify their marketing efforts by focusing primarily on Bakelite in 1923. It was good timing, as the early 1920s would bring a major shift in the way Americans viewed plastics.
Only after World War I did Americans begin to recognize Bakelite as a modern material. It had been tiptoeing into their homes aboard shaving brushes and toasters, but Bakelite got a boost with the exploding postwar popularity of radio. Do-it-yourselfers assembled radio sets on Bakelite-laminated panels and chassis, and molded plastic radio dials and knobs became all but universal.
Bakelite Corporation Advertising Booklet, "Procedure For Research in the Use of Bakelite Materials," 1934
The Bakelite Corporation expanded on Americans' growing recognition of its products in the mid-1920s with a robust promotional campaign. The company adopted a new trademark, the letter 'B' above the infinity symbol, to reflect Bakelite's seemingly limitless applications. Literature promoting a wide range of Bakelite-related processes and goods emphasized the slogan, "The Material of a Thousand Uses."
Bakelite's new marketing strategies anticipated the expiration of Leo Baekeland's patents in 1926 and 1927, when competing materials with trade names like Crystillin, Durium, Makalot, and Resinox emerged, and prices dropped. Bakelite's campaign also reflected advances in the plastics industry. The company increasingly shared the market with competitors producing a growing range of inexpensive plastic goods.
The American Catalin Corporation imported a German method of coloring phenolic resins in the late 1920s. Catalin introduced products, like this bracelet set, in a range of colors starkly different from Bakelite's dark browns and blacks. Other competitors perfected injection molding processes for phenolic resins – a faster and cheaper means of producing novelties. Bakelite quickly adopted these and other developments.
Bakelite was one of few pre-World War II plastics to succeed in marketing an individual brand. In the 1930s, the availability and popularity of plastic bracelets, earrings, pendants, brooches, and hat clips like this one skyrocketed. As with most inexpensive plastic novelties from that time, regardless of manufacturer or material, this jewelry was – and still is – commonly referred to as "Bakelite."
The Bakelite Corporation worked to secure a place for plastics in 1930s America. The company spurred the formation of a trade association for plastics manufacturers – the Society of the Plastics Industry. To help win over designers, manufacturers, and consumers, it also mounted exhibitions promoting Bakelite products as "Modern Plastics for Modern Living."
In the 1930s, industrial designers reimagined everyday products and gave them modern appeal. Through seminars and promotional partnerships, the Bakelite Corporation encouraged these designers to use plastics – "modern" materials that lent themselves to new, streamlined shapes and could be created in a range of updated colors. The age of plastics had undeniably arrived.
Employees Operating New Machinery in the Plastic Building at the Ford Motor Company Rouge Plant, November 1946
The Bakelite Corporation merged with Union Carbide in 1939, and Bakelite saw continued specialized use – especially in industrial applications, as this photograph shows – into the 21st century. But after World War II, most phenolic materials were replaced by thermoplastics – just as durable, but cheaper and easier to produce. These new materials owed some of their success to Bakelite, which had helped make plastics a household name.